f you weren’t familiar with The New Pornographers, you might have found their show at the 9:30 Club on Friday evening — the first of two nights at the venue — surprisingly clean. Despite their name, there wasn’t a single moment of obscenity; instead, the evening was full of great performances of the terrific songs the Canadian band has been making for more than 20 years.
The story behind The New Poronographers’ name came as a surprise to me. I assumed it came from Jimmy Swaggart’s statement, “Rock and roll is the new pornography,” but it turned out I was wrong. Bandleader Carl Newman actually came up with it after seeing a Japanese movie called The Pornographers.
Formed in 1997 by musicians involved in the local Vancouver scene, The New Pornographers released their first LP, Mass Romantic, to critical acclaim in 2000. They’ve consistently been critical darlings, up to their most recent release, this year’s Continue As Guest. At 9:30 Club on May 19, the set began with one of their new songs, “Marie and the Undersea,” and it included several other cuts: the title track “Really, Really Light,” “Cat and Mouse With the Light,” “Last and Beautiful,” “Last and Beautiful,” and “Pontius Pilate’s Home Movies.”
In a discussion we had on Twitter, Tyler Mahan Coe described Neko Case — who sings most of the lead vocals for the Pornographers — as “pop with brains.” That same description fits the band, whose sound at times can resemble New Wave groups like Duran Duran — but whose songwriting is often more literary and sophisticated than most of what gets over in pop music. That sophistication attracts an intelligent and discerning audience; I spent the show next to an English professor who had some great insights into the show and the music.
The Pornographers wasted little time on idle chit-chat, keeping the focus on the songs. This year is the 20th anniversary of their second album, The Electric Version, and Carl told the audience they’d been digging out “deep cuts” like “It’s Only Divine Right” to include in their live set. He mused on why they hadn’t been playing it “every night for the last 20 years.”
Stream “It’s Only Divine Right” by The New Pornographers on YouTube:
Many of my favorite songs, like “The Laws Have Changed,” made it into the set. Even when the subject matter of the songs, like “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism,” was more serious and downbeat, the music always had a strong beat, and you could dance to it. Perhaps the most danceable of their songs — and they’re all pretty danceable — was the appropriately titled “Dancehall Domine.”
The set also included “Use It,” the love song “Falling Down The Stairs of Your Smile,” “All the Old Showstoppers,” “Adventures in Solitude,” “Angelcover,” “Testament to Youth in Verse,” “High Ticket Attractions,” “Champions of Red Wine,” and “The Jessica Numbers.” They finished with the title cuts, respectively, of Whiteout Conditions and Mass Romantic. For their encore, they played “Challengers,” “Sweet, Sweet Talk,” and “The Bleeding Heart Show.”
In addition to the band’s regular members — Newman on guitars and lead vocals, Case on lead vocals and tambourine, Todd Fancey on guitar, Kathryn Calder on keys and backing vocals, John Collins on bass, and Joe Seirders on drums — they were joined by Adam Schatz on saxophone.
Wild Pink, who play alternative country-rock that shows the influence of bands like Wilco, opened the show. The guitar work really stood out. One of the ways to effect the country-rock sound is with twang (in the guitar, but also sometimes with other instruments like banjo), but it can also be done by using an electric guitar to emulate the whining sound of pedal steel, which was the route Wild Pink took to their destination. There are distinct technologies that allow this to be done, like the B-bender invented by the late Byrd Clarence White, but I couldn’t see the guitar clearly enough to see if that was being used.
Pop music often gets a bad wrap for being formulaic and for the lack of maturity and depth in the songwriting. No one can accuse The New Pornographers of either of these things; they manage the difficult task of making catchy, even danceable songs, without sacrificing anything in their craft.
Here are a few photos of Wild Pink opening The New Pornographers at 9:30 Club on May 19, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of David LaMason.
And here are some photos of The New Pornographers performing at 9:30 Club on May 19, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of David LaMason.