Band of Easy Virtue
First, there's the name: the New Pornographers. It sounds like a group put together by Boogie Nights' Dirk Diggler. All big-hair heavy metal, skin-tight leather pants and testosterone posturing. Or maybe a wink-wink, nudge-nudge band of clever lads more interested in delivering limp sex-joke lyrics than potent music.
New Pornographer bassist and producer John Collins admits that sometimes people show up expecting a sexy show. But "they take one look at us and forget all that."
Because the truth is that the New Pornographers are a group of rock music-loving Canadians whose most salacious trait is the obscenely infectious quality of their music. After just two albums -- 2000's attention-grabbing Mass Romantic and this year's equally excellent Electric Version -- the band has started attracting an audience interested in their music and not just their name.
The band is the brainchild of Carl Newman, whom fans of quirky pop will recognize from his days fronting Zumpano, a mid-'90s Sub Pop band that favored the Zombies over Nirvana. In 1996, Newman began toying with the idea of making a solo album, so he started gathering together some of Vancouver's finest musicians, including Collins, vocalist Neko Case and guitarist-songwriter Dan Bejar, to work with him. He thought up the name the New Pornographers, which he came to like even more after learning that televangelist-singer Jimmy Swaggart wrote a book called Music: The New Pornography.
"Originally the idea was to get something together to present to Sub Pop," Collins revealed during a phone interview from Victoria, British Columbia. Newman thought that Sub Pop chieftain Jonathan Poneman, a Zumpano fan, would be interested in an album. The label, however, didn't bite.
With their expectations dashed, the various New Pornographers drifted back to their primary gigs: Bejar to his band Destroyer, Collins to his various bands and production gigs, Case to her burgeoning solo career. Keyboardist Blaine Thurier co-wrote and directed the feature film Low Self-Esteem Girl. After original drummer Fisher Rose dropped out, Kurl Dahle, formerly of Limblifter, filled his spot. During the late '90s, the band continued to play and do some recording, but things started to take off only after the Vancouver label Mint put their song "Letter from an Occupant" on a compilation in 2000.
When you listen to the New Pornographers' quicksilver music, you can see why Sub Pop was flummoxed. A listener's expectations are continually confounded. Normally, you expect a song that starts in one genre to stay there. But New Pornographers songs are relentlessly restless, flitting from new wave to power pop to glam rock, often in a matter of seconds. Take, for example, "The New Face of Zero and One" from Electric Version. It starts off with a drumbeat and guitar riff that recalls Adam and the Ants, but then moves, with a blast of vocals, into sunshine-pop territory. Without dropping these musical threads, the song adds on power-pop punch and Beach Boy harmonies. Yet somehow things never unravel. And that probably is the New Pornographers' signature quality: They stuff a song with a ton of styles without creating a chaotic mess.
Instead of devising a "new wave" song or a "'60s Britpop" tune, the New Pornographers sprinkle musical references throughout all of their tunes. This method, as Collins astutely points out, provides cohesiveness to the album. Another way, according to Collins, that the band brings a homogeneity to its multifaceted sound is that Newman picked up on secondary songwriter Bejar's tendency to finish his songs with a grand coda, and incorporated this technique into some of his own tunes.
Newman and Bejar also share a love of toying with song structure. They confound listeners because they don't use verses and choruses in traditional ways. Much like their rapid-fire use of musical references, their unorthodox approach to song conventions brings an excitement to the listening experience.
As Collins explains: "Carl, and Dan too, write songs where you can't tell what is the chorus and what is the verse. On radio songs, it's really clear what the verse is and what the chorus is. The verses are dull and forgettable, and the chorus is repetitious and really memorable. There's an intentional ambiguity between the verse and chorus that Carl really likes. As long as he thinks that any part is sufficiently interesting and pretty, it doesn't matter if it's an overly complicated chorus and an overly flowery, interesting verse."
And their songs' ample merits have brought the band more attention than they had ever expected. Just a few years ago, they were doing the occasional gig in Vancouver for handfuls of friends and fans. Collins confesses that "there was no sense that this would take off" when they started out. But take off it did. They have garnered praise from not only music mags like Rolling Stone and Spin but from such general media publications as The New York Times to Teen Vogue as well. They have appeared on Letterman and shared the stage at South By Southwest with Ray Davies.
That critics have cozied up to the New Pornographers isn't that unexpected. Besides their clever take on pop music, the group features Newman, with his Zumpano cult band pedigree, and Case, the alt-country darling who recently was voted "sexiest babe in indie rock" on Playboy.com. What's more surprising is how quickly they have attracted an audience beyond the critics. Collins concedes that "it's really amazing, really exceeding what I was expecting." He adds, "I'm not used to selling out shows. It's a brand-new experience for me, for all of us."
Their success also altered their perspective during the recording of Electric Version. "The notion of making an album for a relatively large audience was brand-new to us." He adds with a laugh, "People might be actually hearing this. You're not twiddling around in a vacuum. It's sort of a strange thing, especially after doing this for all these years."
What fans and critics have picked up on is the joy with which the New Pornographers make their music. While it might be densely layered, somewhat contorted pop, there's an invigorating buoyancy to the music that the listener can't ignore. Collins also believes that people recognize that they're "having a lot of fun putting the songs together and playing them." Plus, he says, "We're not people who take themselves too seriously. I think that's something that we learned because we're all kinda old. This is all as good as it gets. There's no pretense. We're doing something that's not stupid and it still doesn't have to be self-important. It just can be what it is."
So when you see a marquee reading "the New Pornographers," don't expect to see a kinky sex show. Just go in and enjoy some delightfully inventive music played by folks out to have some fun. And please, leave your latex bodysuit at home.
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