ARTS

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August 2, 2003

Vancouverites show Boston that music is the new pornography

I have lived outside Boston for all of my life, and I am all the better for it. Large cities (American ones, anyway) don't get much quirkier or intimate than Boston, which is always delighting me with previously unseen nooks and crannies. Did you know it's the Cradle of the Revolution? You can look that up.

However, there is one particular thing that annoys me about my home city, and that is its early bedtime. Isn't anything open after 1 a.m.? The answer to that question is no and that includes the public transportation system. We call the subway the "T" around here, which is probably the "T" in MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority), or it might just stand for "train" or "tough luck." In any case, it closes at about 12:45 am, which is about the time at which I start looking around for a 55 Garfield bus.

Now for my point. Sometimes one must make sacrifices for a good cause, even if that cause is just rocking out on a weeknight. Sometimes one must shake the foundations of puritanical Boston and try to make the indie hipsters dance. Sometimes you have to sweat and sing and groove and jump around like an uncoordinated white boy (not difficult for the author). And sometimes you just have to take that taxi for twelve bucks instead of using your one-dollar T token.

That time, as it turns out, was last Thursday night, when Vancouver's own New Pornographers scampered into the musty basement of the Middle East club in Cambridge, which is Boston Prep for those scoring at home. I also got a chance to talk to both keyboardist Blaine Thurier and bassist John Collins before the show, as we sat in their motor home and drank Molson Dry, or something like it. They are lucky men, not only because they play rock n' roll music for a living, but because they probably have also seen Neko Case naked. They are also nice guys, and they enlightened me to much that is Canadian, including Vancouver politics and why Bush sucks (yawn).

For those unfamiliar with the New Pornographers, let me introduce you. They consist of six British Columbians (not including "secret member" Dan Bejar), almost all of who are or were members of other Vancouver area bands. In essence, they are a supergroup. They first formed as a side project in the late 90s, but when they decided to get serious and release an album at the end of 2000, their debut Mass Romantic, it ended up winning a Juno award (Canadian for Grammy) for Best Alternative Album and was declared a masterpiece by many.

Though it may not rightfully claim the title of masterpiece, Mass Romantic is one damn good album with one great song after another. With chugging guitars, buzzing keyboards, and incredible vocal harmonies, the New Pornographers create perfect pop-rock tunes, combining all that you and they love, but also transcending all those influences. They, and especially default frontman Carl Newman, are wonderful arrangers and lyricists, craftsmen of indelible, uber-catchy pop. It comes off so seamlessly because they are really good at what they do.

The New Pornographers are now on tour in support of their second release, Electric Version, which was released in May on Matador. When I talked to Thurier and Collins, the band was about a week and a half into this particular leg of the tour, having just arrived from a show in Ontario the night before. Collins reminds one a bit of an investment banker who decided to quit his job and join a rock band, while Thurier looks and sounds just like Jeff Tweedy if you were drunk.

"Sorry about the smell in here," said John Collins, as we sat in the tour van, which was quite small considering it is the home away from home for six grown people. I proceeded to pepper them with questions about the tour and their increasing popularity in America, which is attributable in part to Matador, which landed them a spot on David Letterman not too long ago. They have been playing to packed houses all across the US, and were in store for another triumph that night, as they sold out the Middle East on their third pass through Boston in the last three years.

What's caused this increase in pornography's popularity? Well, a more attentive press and a hard-working American distributor, which has created, according to Thurier, "250 million more potential fans" across the nation. The college kids, of course, just eat this stuff up. But, beyond all the growing buzz and acknowledgment, it certainly helps to have a great record to back it up. Though the songs on Electric Version are not quite as full out and dense as those on Mass Romantic, the album is still a wonderful artistic statement, maintaining the Pornographers' signature sound, yet losing some of the occasional excess that appeared in the first album. It shows a band that has grown even more confident in its capabilities.

Personally, I think the main reason it all works is that the New Pornographers are a band of smart people, whose intelligence goes beyond just arranging music. Collins and Thurier waxed eloquently, and wittily, on topics ranging from touring protocol to why it sucks that Vancouver is hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics (don't get them started). Even in concert, there lies a confidence behind every hook and keyboard noodling, as if they know how infectious their music is, but are now immune to it after years of practice. Over the course of about 90 minutes and three or four encores, the band ran through almost the entire New Pornographers catalogue, which still only contains about 25 recorded songs. But without a single dud in the bunch? How many bands can say that?

After shimmying and sweating my way through the entire concert, I emerged into the cool Boston evening feeling a little bit reckless. Had I missed the last train? As I approached the nearest red line stop, I saw that the gates to the entrance had been locked, and I would be forced to find alternate, more expensive means of transportation. Plus, I had to get up in three and a half hours to go to work (don't ask). My ears were still ringing. I was tired. I guess some things are just worth it.