Thursday, October 25, 2007

The New Pornographers, Now Starring Dan Bejar

They've always been a better studio band than live band. The live performance traditionally have been perfectly adequate, with good moments but a ramshackle feel. They've felt makeshift, like everyone was winging it, sometimes a half-step off, with Carl Newman running the show and everybody else trying to keep up.

Something has happened. At Webster Hall last night, they performed as a great live band, for the first time in the five shows that I've attended. They were backed by a cellist, a violinist, a flute and accordion. Neko asserted herself as a bigger stage presence. They sounded perfect, fuller and deeper than the albums -- a development that stands in contrast to old performances, where it almost felt like they were a cover band trying to cover their own studio albums. Not anymore. The Pornographers, it's great to see, are now a live band, not a loose collective that puts out superb albums and occasionally tours.

It was somehow even better than that, though. Challengers seems to have baffled some fans, with the band sounding less like an Edison Lighthouse/Mungo Jerry hybrid, going for more mellow and even-paced. As an album, though, it's their most complete and successful output. There aren't the rousing pace-setters like "Sing Me Spanish Techno" or "Letter From and Occupant," but there's also nothing to skip -- no "Bones of an Idol," which sounds terrible crammed between "Twin Cinema" and "Use It." Challengers was a creative leap, and a complete success, and the performance of its songs was kind of moving.

There was no other word to describe Neko Case, Carl Newman and Dan Bejar, together on stage, lined up evenly at the front of the stage, triple headlining, when they sang "Adventures in Solitude," a beautiful song, a far cry from Pornographers classics like "Slow Descent Into Alcoholism," but so pure and pristine.
Balancing on
One wounded wing
Circling the edge
Of the neverending
The best of the vanished marvels have gathered inside your door

More than begin
But less than forget
But spirits born
From the not-happened-yet
Gathering there
To pay off a debt brought back from the wars

We thought we lost you
We thought we lost you
We thought we lost you
Welcome back
The three of them harmonizing on the refrain, singing to a silent room, was a moving thing. You hear those lines and it's like they were singing to each other. It's the height of geekdom to watch Neko, Newman and Bejar and think of something like The Last Waltz, and how amazing it was that there was a time when Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan routinely shared stages together. The analogy is imperfect, but there's this thrill of the glamorous Neko, Newman the likable frat boy, and the nervous disheveled Bejar, who've now done very well for themselves outside of this supergroup side-project, assembling something magical that they've never approximated in past shows. It was the kind of show where you wished you could thank them afterward.

I'd be curious to know the Carl Newman-Dan Bejar creative process. Bejar's own band, Destroyer, has a cult following among critics and music nerds. Destroyer's Rubies was much loved and wildly praised. Bejar's Destroyer tells its stories in incredibly elaborate, interlaced songs and lyrics, but Bejar's output is never so accessible or lighthearted as it is when he's with the Pornographers. On Challengers, Bejar has his best Pornographers product in a song called "Myriad Harbor." "Myriad Harbor" starts with a guitar that sounds both restless and impish, almost smartassed. And then its lyrics kick in, a kind of running dialog that Bejar has with himself as he wanders New York:
Bejar: I took a plane, I took a train.
Newman/Case/Bejar: Ah, who cares you always end up in the city.
Bejar: I said to Carl, look up for once.
Newman/Case/Bejar: See just how the suns sets in the sky.
It's about wandering and restlessness, but being comfortable in your own skin at once, hitting the peak with the line, "All I ever wanted help with was you." "Myriad Harbor" has all the Bejar landmarks, the phrasings and the great bouncing falsetto, as if someone had taken Frank O'Hara's poems, Blood on the Tracks and a dash of Tiny Tim, added a bottle of Corona, and cobbled together an artist.

It would go too far to say that Bejar stole the show. He wanders in and out of songs, never looking at the audience as he sulks across stage to take his spot at the microphone, appearing disheveled and out-of-place next to glamorous Neko and All-Canadian Carl, and then pow! his song starts and the beer is down. Whether they made more use of Bejar last night than they had in the past is tough to say, but he sort of stole the show.

And I think that he steals Challengers. Neko and Newman owned past Pornographers album, but the best stuff here is all Bejar.

This is why I'd love to know the process between Bejar and Newman, both of whom sound better when they're collaborating than they do working individually. Bejar is more accessible and joyful when he has Newman's influence; Newman is less sugary. And you think a little about what people said about John Lennon and Paul McCartney, that The Beatles magic worked because Lennon tempered McCartney's pop and McCartney countered Lennon's seriousness. You get the feeling that as Bejar and Neko become more prominent in their own rights, that economics and schedules are going to make the Pornographes an infeasible proposition -- when they sing, "We almost lost you. Welcome back." you wonder whether it was written from Newman to Bejar, and you hope that they keep working together.


Fiddles said...

Saw them last night for the first time. Thought it was weird -- Neko's mic was way too hot (especially on songs where she was backing up Newman), it was about 10,000 degrees in there, and Webster's sound was, predictably, awful. But I still loved it. Not often that I leave a concert so enthusiastic even despite having a bunch of gripes. Just thought it was great energy, great set, great music. Dan Bejar is hilarious (he seemed completely hammered by the end of the show), and the lead singer from Violent Femmes came out during the first encore. All in all, an awesome show. And I also thought that Emma Pollock was awesome. Want to hear more of her stuff.

blythe said...

i'm seeing them in november in dallas, hope they're still on fire. otherwise, i blame you. this was a great review. way to articulate their appeal.

flop said...

All-Canadian Carl!

I will now always imagine him with tousled hockey hair, being extra polite before he hops into his GM car with daytime running lights, and drives off to school at McGill. Or remember that time he drove his team 108 yards in the fourth quarter, converting FOUR third downs to tie the homecoming game before the crosstown rivals beat them on a last-second rouge. Something like that.

crimenotes said...

Fiddles: Yes, lots of rough patches with the sound at Webster on Wednesday. Lots of feedback, some fuzzy background noise, they never seemed to get the right balance across microphones. Show still turned out to be excellent.

Blight: Thank you, and I hope so too. They were really excellent.

Flop: zzz...

Jaime said...

I totally agree. I saw the Thursday show, and we were like, Who's that drunk homeless guy wandering onstage? And then we were like, Ohhh.