New Pornographers bare souls, don’t sell themselves short

By Elizabeth Goetz

My mother was making idle conversation with me at one point this summer, and remembered an upcoming concert I’d been excited about. “Whom are you going to see again?” she asked after a moment of silence. “The…the prostitutes?” Confused, I stammered as I tried to figure out what was going on. Finally, we figured out that no, this was not a conversation about my study-abroad adventures in the red-light districts of Amsterdam and Paris, but rather one about a concert I’d been excited about for months: The New Pornographers were finally coming back to Chicago. My mother has never been one to remember names. Thus, the confusion was explained, and with the result of a far better nickname for Canada’s best export than Pitchfork’s preferred nickname—“Pornos.”

“Prostitutes” would be an ironic nickname, though. The New Pornographers have not sold out, despite the four studio albums to their name, if last Friday’s show at Metro can be taken as any evidence. A sprawling band, almost every member of which is well invested in other groups, side projects, and solo work, they still managed to perform together as a cohesive unit, with 10 musicians, either playing or on the sidelines, on stage at any given time. This band knows that the rules are different for concert performances than they are for studio recording sessions: Your members all need to be in the same place when you’re on tour. You can’t just get that harp player out in St. Louis to send in a few digital tracks to be dubbed in. But they have their priorities straight, luckily for Metro’s packed house. Sultry vocalist Neko Case made it away from her solo work (her latest album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, has been out for about a year and a half now), Dan Bejar left his Vancouver-based band Destroyer for a bit, and A.C. Newman temporarily let go of his brand-new marriage to Christy Simpson, the band’s marketing manager at Matador Records. That’s some audience devotion.

Following openers Benjy Feree, who sound like a bluesier M. Ward, and the fantastic Emma Pollock, who comes straight from Glasgow but sings with a delicious voice easily mistaken for southern, New Porn dove into its set with its newest stuff from last summer’s album Challengers. Challengers is a solid album, but its material isn’t what a long-time fan associates with the band. It’s got a much slower sound. While it is still an exciting one, it leans toward the softer side, and is perhaps not the best to grab a crowd by the ears. Luckily, the focus was on the slightly more substantial tracks, including “All the Old Showstoppers,” with its cool, steady drumbeats, and my favorite new song, the more rollicking “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth,” loading up the instruments but somehow managing to avoid excess.

Excitingly, also, the New Pornographers’s set was arranged in loosely reverse chronological order, driving the audience to jump and dance more with the increased familiarity. Mass Romantic’s best kicked fresh fist-pumping, head-tossing fever into the crowd at what must have been just after midnight, and, let me tell you, the euphorically repetitive “Slow Descent into Alcoholism” never sounds as good as when you’re afraid that it might not get played at all. And who would want an encore of anything but “Letter from an Occupant,” obtuse lyrics and all? Even if Carl had to remind Neko of the chord structure, little could have been better. Little, except for maybe the band’s sense of humor. Keyboardist and backup vocalist Kathryn Calder, who sometimes substitutes for Neko at concerts less blessed by the gods than this one, ran across the stage to grab an apple-shaped maraca to shake while she tapped away with the other hand and nodded her head, but by the next break between songs she was distracted and pointed out to the audience that she just tried to bite into said percussion-endowed apple.

The whole band rocked out to “Menomena” from someone’s iBook when scrambling to remember the set list a few songs before that. They were having a good time on stage, and damned if their attentive, hipster-laden audience wasn’t going to do its best to match their energy on the dance floor.