If you’ve seen the commercials for the University of Phoenix, you might have noticed the background music is this odd, distinctive clip of what sounds like a Phil Spectorish choir singing “hey-la, hey-la” over a fierce rock beat complete with flailing, Keith Moon-style drums. You’re hearing The New Pornographers. This is the most exciting moment from the most exciting song on the most exciting pop/rock album of the 2000s, in my opinion, Twin Cinema (2005).
As befits the waning power of formal structures that characterizes this era, the New Pornographers are more of a “project” than a band, although onstage Wednesday night at Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood, they fit snugly in the pocket as if they’d been playing together nonstop for 10 years. But looking at their history and personnel, you get the feeling they could vanish at any time, without rancor, just because the key members found something else to do.
So that’s one reason I made sure to go to their show this week promoting the new album Challengers. Neko Case’s solo career, which preceded her joining the NPs, has now achieved a level of esteem and is showing inklings of commercial viability, so she might not stick around. They already are forced to tour without her sometimes. In fact, her replacement, Kathleen Calder, is already a member of the band and on Wednesday night she helped fill out the big co-ed vocal sound that is the hallmark of this band.
The other unstable element is Dan Bejar, who usually contributes about a quarter of the songs to each NP album. He was on stage too, staggering onstage slugging a bottle of what looked like Lowenbrau as he prepared to sing his songs, then drifting offstage like someone who forgot his keys while the band performed songs by its leader, Carl Newman. Newman also has a solo career. His album The Slow Wonder is one of the other great pop/rock albums of this decade.
It was a generous show, with lots of songs from all four of their albums, Twin Cinema especially. It was loud. Given the quieter instrumentation on most of the Challengers album, I think I expected to see everyone playing mandolins, banjos and grand piano, but no, it was two guitars (three when Bejar was onstage), two electronic keyboards, bass, drums and Neko Case expertly rattling a tambourine.
On the way to the show, I was trying to explain to my son that, in the 1970s, the tambourine was part of every rock act’s show, from Ike and Tina Turner to the Who. It was as much of a cliche as the infamous cowbell. I shouldn’t have been surprised that Neko would bring it back. The greatness of the New Pornographers comes from their ability to transform all the cliches of rock’s four decades into entirely new, fresh sounds.
What choice does any rock band of the 2000s have? Rock has dominated pop music for far too long, and still is more popular than the more contemporary forms of hip-hop. The Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney can snap their fingers and fill arenas worldwide, so the big backbeat’s appeal is persistent. But most of the rock bands I come across on late-night TV are blatantly derivative and thus boring. The New Pornographers are delightfully derivative and fascinating. It works because the songs are just very, very good. Songwriting is the key to good music. Good songwriting transcends genre. And while there might be too much rock ‘n roll, there will never be too many good songs.
Carl Newman’s lyrics are well-constructed but usually a little obscure. That wonderful “hey-la” song, “The Bleeding Heart Show,” is extremely evocative, but its exact meaning is somewhat obscure. Obviously, the University Phoenix thinks “hey-la” means, “a better life through higher education.” Whoever cut the theatrical trailer for the new film Feast of Love apparently thinks “hey-la” means finding the One. I expect to hear it a few more times in commercial settings — which is fine, that’s how little bands like the New Pornographers get fans nowadays.
One of the delights of the new CD is that Newman makes it clearer what he’s singing about. Probably this is true because the album is mostly about love and marriage. One lovely tune, “Go Places,” is a waltz, based on his proposal of marriage to the woman he has now, I believe, married:
Yes a heart will always go one step too far
Come the morning and the four corners I see
What the moral of the back story could be
Come with me, go places
And a heart will always stay one day too long
Always hoping for the hot flashes to come
For the glue to dry on our new creation
Come with me, go places
Come head on, full circle
Our arms fill with miracles
Play hearts, kid, they work well
Like classics play aces
Stay with me, go places
Once more for the ages
Neko sang this one, plus the title song “Challengers,” and many of the songs Newman assigned her early in the band’s history like “Mass Romantic” and “Letter From and Occupant,” but she skipped over her two big solo numbers on Twin Cinema, “Bones of An Idol” and “These are the Fables.” Despite her big solo following, in the New Pornographers, she is just one of the band members, never performing any of the songs from her solo career. Neko is an anti-diva, dressed simply and wearing little if any makeup, and yet it is hard to avoid focusing on her. She has a natural, unforced charisma, and one comes to crave hearing her voice.
At my age, I don’t know how many more rock shows I’ll go to. Nightclubs like McCabe’s are one thing, but at the Henry Fonda, there were no seats. I stood up for the entire show, and even danced a little (with myself), standing behind my son so he wouldn’t see me and get embarrassed. But I’m addicted to the music of the New Pornographers. Now that I know they’re every bit as good live as on record, I’ll line up to see them again, even if I have to bring a walker.