Canadian Bands You Should Know: The New Pornographers

You almost need a Venn diagram to talk about the New Pornographers. It would certainly prove helpful in identifying all the side projects undertaken by the collection of over-achievers who make up this indie super-group. To say that, collectively and individually, the members of the New Pornographers have had a big impact upon the Canadian music scene would be a woeful understatement.
The New Pornographers revel in the kind of massive over-the-top sound that you might expect from a big jolly group of highly regarded musicians playing at the top of their game. Insanely catchy songs with loud harmony-drenched choruses are punctuated by clever hooks, unexpected bridges, and call-and-response glee club merriment. Deliciously enigmatic lyrics, with catchy phrases that are just shy of making sense, are belted out boisterously or layered into verses of building intensity. This is a band that always sounds like they are having way too much fun to be doing something entirely legal.

The New Pornographers came together in Vancouver in the late 1990's, and were initially comprised of frontman Carl Newman (formerly of Superconductor and Zumpano, and now also an acclaimed solo artist), vocalist Neko Case (drummer for several local bands, including the Corn Sisters and Maow, with a parallel red-hot country-noir solo career), vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Dan Bejar (of Destroyer, and later also of Swan Lake and Hello, Blue Roses), multi-instrumentalist and primary bassist John Collins (of the Evaporators and Destroyer), drummer Kurt Dahle (of Limblifter and Age of Electric), guitarist Todd Fancey (also of Limblifter, now with a subsequent solo career), and keyboardist Blaine Thurier (also an independent filmmaker). Vocalist and keyboardist Kathryn Calder (of Immaculate Machine and now also a successful solo artist) later joined the roster to fill in for an increasingly overbooked Neko Case during live performances. Calder was first introduced to tour audiences as Carl Newman's long-lost niece, after her mother, who had been adopted as a baby, discovered her birth family. She became a permanent member of the band in 2006.
Despite the persistent rumour that the New Pornographers gleaned their name from televangelist Jimmy Swaggart's admonition that “rock and roll is the new pornography”, founder Carl Newman maintains that he hit upon the name after watching a darkly satirical Japanese film called “The Pornographers”.  
Carl Newman is principal songwriter, with Dan Bejar also lending his considerable songwriting chops to a good portion of the band's material. Newman's near perfect pop songs mesh well with Bejar's more unorthodox numbers. Carl Newman, Neko Case and Dan Bejar share lead vocal duties, with Case's gobsmackingly powerful pipes and Bejar's instantly recognizable tones imparting opposing but equally defining characteristics to the music.  Although fairly common now among indie folk bands, the New Pornographers were forerunners in reviving boy-girl duets in pop music. They brought a new vitality to a once-honoured pop tradition that had languished for decades, which, until their formation, was dusted off only for one-off collaborations.

The New Pornographers' debut album Mass Romantic was released in Canada in 2000 and in the U.S. in 2003. Recording took almost three years and was beset by production difficulties and the rather loose association of the band at the time. Despite the troubled beginning, Mass Romantic's riotous explosion of playful power pop, with a sound that was both irreverent and spontaneous, was a showstopper. To this day I can recall the first time I heard the title track. The joyous burst of exuberance blasting from the speakers gave me goosebumps. It still does. Mass Romantic was cited in several best of the year lists and won the Juno Award for Alternative Album of the Year. Blender Magazine eventually ranked Mass Romantic as the 24th best indie album of all time, the second highest ranking Canadian album to do so (behind Arcade Fire's Funeral at 6th).
The bright sounds of 2003's Electric Version continued the riotous pop explosion that audiences and CD-buyers were becoming increasingly enamoured of, and was also listed by taste-makers on several best of lists. Twin Cinema followed in 2005, to critical acclaim. Shortlisted for the 2006 Polaris Music Prize and ranked #1 in PopMatters' best of the year list, Twin Cinema reached a zenith of commercial success when the single Use It was used as a theme song for the CBC's The Hour.

The release of Challengers in 2007 marked a shift to darker, more introspective music. Stand-out tracks like “Failsafe” and “Adventures in Solitude” show a more restrained side of the band.  Even so, the trademark cheekiness that was so prevalent on earlier New Pornographer releases still shines through, particularly in the tracks penned by Dan Bejar. His sassy call-and-response tune, “Myriad Harbour”, made Rolling Stone's best of the year list.

The New Pornographers' most recent studio album, Together, was released in 2010 and is dedicated to the memory of Kathryn Calder's mother (Carl Newman's half-sister). Featuring guest contributions by such heavy hitters as St. Vincent, Beirut's Zach Condon, and Okkervil River's Will Sheff, the album was long-listed for the 2010 Polaris Prize. Continuing the run of increasingly commercial success, several tracks from Together have been used in television ads.
With each member of the New Pornographers pulling double (and sometimes triple) duties in side projects, it's often a crap-shoot as to how many and which band members you will see at a concert. Ultimately it doesn't matter. Even with a skeleton crew, the New Pornographers deliver a powerfully cathartic live performance, but when the full compliment is up on stage, it's mind-blowing.

– Barbara Bruederlin

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