When the RFT recently spoke with New Pornographers frontman Carl Newman, he admitted that Neko Case breaking her ankle before the band's April 2008 appearance in St. Louis affected his mood. "It really pissed me off that she was gone for the last few shows of that tour," he said. "I know people going to the shows were annoyed too, but if it makes them feel any better, I was equally annoyed." This reveal explained the listless atmosphere of that disappointing concert - a night when the band's peppy pop felt dull and rote.
The New Pornographers returned to the Pageant last night with a healthy Case and (as an added bonus) occasional touring member Dan Bejar on board. The resulting concert properly displayed the individual talents of everyone in the band, in the form of danceable songs, crystalline harmonies and a career-spanning setlist.
Boston's "Foreplay/Long Time" boomed over the house sound system as the posse of New Pornographers trudged onstage. They wasted no time unfurling two power-pop sucker-punches, Twin Cinema's "Sing Me Spanish Techno" and the newer tune "Up In The Dark." As these songs demonstrate, a New Pornographers pop confection is at once ornate and chaotic - music busy with harmonies, melodies and textures whirling around like a carnival ride.
More often than not, this contrast works. The candy-coated carousel music of "July Jones" and the deep, ridged grooves of "Moves" - which featured some fine, serious cello - connected well with the audience. The set-ending "Bleeding Heart Show" was even better: Atop a sparse piano-and-guitar base, the band piled on melodica, loud guitar and thundering drums - while still leaving room for Kathryn Calder, Case and Newman's voices to coalesce like a cathartic gospel revival. In general, Calder sounded as self-assured as she's ever been, whether shaking a tambourine or singing lead on the lovely, lacy "Adventures in Solitude."
"The Laws Have Changed" and "All the Old Showstoppers," however, felt perfunctory and stuffy, respectively. They underscored the occasional downside to the New Pornographers' inter-band relationships: No matter how many people are on stage at any given time, the band is rather self-contained. It's not one for stage movement or much audience interaction; in fact, the group's banter tends to be its members talking amongst themselves. So when a song does falter musically, nothing else exists to salvage the performance. (To be fair, this internal chemistry can be a strength: When Case assumed vocal duties on the delicate waltz "Go Places," the rest of the band stayed out of her way and let her impossibly pristine voice slice through the Pageant.)
Bejar's laid-back demeanor, unruly head of hair and eccentricities made him resemble the Dude from the Big Lebowski. He strolled on and off stage leisurely, often with a beer in hand, and casually added guitar and vocals to songs. His fierce lead turn on "Jackie Dressed in Cobras" was an early highlight; he spat out his words to match drummer Kurt Dahle's propulsive rhythms. On "Myriad Harbour" and "Silver Jenny Dollar," Bejar enunciated with the precision and cadences of fellow pop eccentric Robyn Hitchcock -- or like an absentminded English professor. (Well, same difference.) The overall impression he left was that of a droll sage emerging to impart his rare jewels of wisdom to the masses.
The laid-back atmosphere extended to the performance. Before what eventually became "July Jones," the band false-started a song because Newman couldn't remember the words. (The forgetfulness became a running joke of the night; he eventually did remember the song's proper lyrics, he said.) Dahle dropped a stick after spinning it in the air and trying to catch it, while the whistling during "Crash Years" was just off-key enough to be bothersome. And God love him, but Blaine Thurier's keyboards - especially on "Mass Romantic" - were tinny, primitive and ridiculous, like a caricature of a child's keyboard.
The tension between pristine pop and a sloppier live performance distinguishes a New Pornographers show from Case or Newman solo sets. Thankfully, tonight the balance tilted toward the former - and any imperfections were charming, not irritating.