April 15, 2008

New Pornographers and Okkervil: A Class Act

Print More

I’ve got it pretty bad for Neko Case. It’s something about that voice, that red hair. She gets up on stage, looking kind of grungy, kind of beautiful, and tells us with that rounded voice of hers that she’s sorry — she’s a little sick. She makes jokes about not being able to hit the high notes. She then sings “Unguided” like there’s nothing more important in the world. And suddenly, we’re all on our feet — in our skinny jeans and hipster Urban Outfitters hoodies — clapping and dancing in awkward State Theatre chairs. And to think we were moved by the openers! But Okkervil River, for all their romping, riotous fun, is nothing like this. Neko (oh, how we wish we were on a first name basis) brings us into the warm, complete sound that is The New Pornographers. When A.C. Newman begs for our sympathy, we are ready to give it, sighing oohs and ahhs at this fantastic woman with a (minor) head cold.
The New Pornographers, having started as a side project for Vancouver’s most talented musicians, has become more successful than most of their solo efforts (with the exception, perhaps, of Neko Case’s solo work and Dan Bejar’s Destroyer, both of which are well known in their own right). Nonetheless, the star-studded group rallied every indie music lover in the Ithaca area — the venue was fully sold out and people were still outside the doors, begging for tickets.
Okkervil River, the opener, from Austin’s indie scene, had its own fan base among the crowd — I heard them singing along in the front rows. The shaggy-haired lead singer, Will Sheff, got us clapping and dancing along to their own brand of introverted rock: lyrics stemming from strange metaphors (a girl compared extensively to a stone), skinny ties as emo-chic, and a drummer who nearly fell asleep during the ballads and woke to schizophrenic frenzy during their best songs.
But we all knew who really brought us out: A.C. Newman, the lead singer and creator of The Pornographers, makes some jokes about self-hate: “You know, I always said everyone thought we kinda sucked.” The turn-out tells us differently, as does the crowd that knows the lyrics to even the newest CD (Challengers), the singing, yelling and proclamations of love for Neko Case and the crazed fans in Ray Ban sunglasses doing a wild new dance to the tambourine-banging sounds of “All of the Things That Go To Make Heaven and Earth.”
The New Pornographers have a dense and complex sound; the consequences of having seven performers (out of the usual eight), each of whose talents cover a spectrum of instruments. Every song is a prolific twist of different characters. A.C. Newman, in his own right, plays the guitar, piano, Wurlizter, Casio, mandolin, percussion, bass and melodion. I was surprised halfway through the show with a strange blue instrument that looked like a kazoo / vacuum cleaner (through extensive Google research, I’ve determined it’s called a melodion). The band plays like a divinely-inspired assembly line: each musician is talented enough to cover all the bases.
But I wouldn’t want to compare the Pornographers to anything mechanic; the magic of their performance was the feeling of unexpected inspiration, a sudden moment when these seven musicians simultaneously found genius.
I’m not sure where they got the name. The music of the New Pornographers isn’t impoverished scenes of naked flesh. It is, instead, wholesome, good for the heart and technically polished. And, of course, we can’t forget that cute girl on the keyboard.