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It takes a lot to convince several hundred people to congregate in any room on an August evening in St. Louis. But when power-pop heavyweights the New Pornographers crammed onto Off Broadway's stage late in the summer of 2003, it became the season's hottest ticket in the city's (literally) hottest venue. (Off Broadway's wood paneling looks charming on a cool fall evening; at 95 percent humidity, it feels more like a well-appointed sauna.)
Adding to the tension this night was the lack of a dancing area. With the band's buzzy, infectious sound, sitting still is not an option -- or so one would think. According to lead singer and chief songwriter Carl Newman, the club had his multi-member band confused with a solo show by Neko Case, one of the band's three singers and a revered recording artist in her own right. Employees set up tables and chairs, which created a setting more appropriate for Case's downtempo, twangy songs.
"'We're not Neko Case, we're a rock band -- sometimes [our fans] even dance,'" Newman recalls telling the club owners, as he chats from the band's hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia. But despite the tension between the sitters and the shakers, Newman has fond memories of the band's St. Louis debut: "I remember that show as really good -- it's nice when you see you kind of won the crowd over."
Indeed, despite the cramped, hot quarters, the New Pornographers convinced those in attendance to surrender to the beat. The crowd congealed into a head-bobbing mass as even seated fans rose to their feet -- and by the time the band broke into its early single, "Letter from an Occupant," it felt like the greatest house party that never was.
By now it's nearly impossible to read about the New Pornographers without seeing them described as a "supergroup," a term normally reserved for a band made up of already-famous members. And while it's true that Newman, Case and quasi-member Dan Bejar have all experienced success on their own, at this point the New Pornographers are big business -- and certainly more of a recognizable name than the members' other projects. The band's third album, Twin Cinema, debuted at No. 44 on the Billboard chart in August, and the collective continues to win over critics and fans alike with its overload of hooks, harmonies and joie de vivre. If there were any justice in the world, such gifts for melody and song structure would be parceled out equally at birth; unfortunately for the rest of us, the New Pornographers possess the majority's share.
All of these accomplishments are remarkable for a band once formed by a handful of Vancouver scenesters only to document a one-off recording project. Those just-for-kicks sessions produced 2000's Mass Romantic, an album that came to be revered by discerning pop fans all over North America. Electric Version followed in 2003 -- and, as the title suggests, the band turned up the amps and created a jumpy hybrid of bright keyboards, buzzy guitars and Newman's often absurdist (but always sing-along-able) lyrics.
Cinema doesn't grab listeners with the same sugar-rushes, but its new subtlety gives the Pornographers' sound necessary depth and lasting resonance. The band has learned to meld rock bombast ("Use It"), soft-touch ballads ("The Bleeding Heart Show") and loopy, screwball studio inventions ("Falling Through Your Clothes"). Still, if there was any pressure on Newman to deliver a blockbuster with this new record, it was all internal.
"I went into it thinking, 'We have to do something a little different,'" he says. "When we made Mass Romantic we were just trusting our instincts, and that's what we continue to do."
These instincts are well-honed at this point; one gets the feeling that Newman and company could show up at your apartment, fiddle with your Magnetic Poetry and an old guitar, and make a masterpiece. And to a certain extent, they do. Despite the precision and expertise the New Pornographers deliver on disc, Newman notes that new songs "The Jessica Numbers" and "Falling Through Your Clothes" were built out of abandoned riffs and studio tomfoolery.
"Both of those songs were born out of screwing around," he says. "There's not a lot of planning that goes on -- to a great degree, we're winging it."
One can say the same thing about the current New Pornographers trek, which is most likely a never-before, never-again experience. Not only is the notoriously hard-to-track-down Case -- who rarely appears in the band's press photography and is absent from the "Use It" music video -- on the tour, but Bejar and his twisted-pop outfit Destroyer will be opening the show, giving fans the rare opportunity to see eight New Pornographers bandmates share the stage.
Bejar's inclusion is particularly thrilling, as his vaguely psychedelic songs, coupled with his inimitable, elastic voice, throw wicked curveballs in the Pornographers' arsenal. Newman, with characteristic shit-eating charm, warns fans not to get too excited.
"He's just gonna show up for his songs," he explains. "There's going to be times when it's gonna be hard to get him onstage, because he's going to be quite drunk."