The Pornographer's Vows

A power-pop maestro settles down and loses a step, but stays far enough ahead

I am fascinated by a photo from Carl Newman's wedding. I feel bad about this. It's a bit untoward and invasive—I have no context for this picture, as I was not invited. And yet, in my defense, it appeared in the New York Times Style Section.

The photo depicts a strawberry-haired power-pop magnate, A.C. Newman, and his exuberant bride. Carl presides over the New Pornographers, Canada's catchiest Loose, Unwieldy Rock Collective, whose just-released fourth album, Challengers, is easily their weakest and most subdued (and yet is still occasionally excellent). Carl has recently fled Vancouver for New York City in the name of love, here depicted in the person of his new bride, Christy Simpson, the marketing manager at Carl's label, Matador. Christy looks just absurdly happy—nearly doubled over with delight, her veil flowing, her eyes wide, her wide-open mouth considerably wider than that. Absolute jubilation. Whatever she's looking at is the most extraordinary thing she's ever seen in her life, which is remarkable in that it's not Carl, the groom, as he's actually standing behind her, out of her field of vision, a half-smile on his face, clapping politely, his eyes fixed on something else that is far less extraordinary. He looks absurdly happy too, really, but in the exact opposite way, projecting inward everything Christy is flinging gleefully outward.

Christy's pose here embodies the Pornographers' 2000 debut, Mass Romantic; Carl represents Challengers. Most people, naturally, gravitate toward the bride. Released a month after Radiohead's comparatively suicidal Kid A, Romantic was a full-windup, running-start smack to the face with a pillow that instantly burst into an aviary's worth of brightly colored feathers, a saccharine Technicolor explosion, like being beaten to death by Pixy Stix. And like all great power-pop, the exuberance of the sound and the Charlie Brown melancholy of the lyrics are wildly incongruous: Its jauntiest, peppiest song is titled "The Slow Descent into Alcoholism." Carl, though the mastermind and primary songwriter, has most of his scenes stolen by two showstopping bandmates: The endearingly serpentine Dan Bejar (think Pepé Le Pew with a disquieting Nabokov fixation) slithers merrily through the maniacal "Execution Day" (which I listened to on repeat for six hours the day George W. Bush was re-elected), while alt.country ambulance siren Neko Case (who many people find attractive) brays through "Letter to an Occupant" as though her audience was gathered in a soundproof room 10 miles away.

Seven years later, Challengers is an infinitely quieter, meeker, more nuanced and resigned piece of work, cut from the same sing-along cloth, but fashioned into a quilt as opposed to a neon hoodie—a peacefully descending Park Slope offering escape from Mass Romantic's raucous Lower East Side. And though Bejar still tosses off his usual handful of half-interested tracks ("Myriad Harbor" is pretty great, though) and Case's flame-throwing howl remains the band's brightest light and deadliest weapon, this is undeniably Carl's show now, one man's miniature empire, no matter how many backup vocalists and flute melodies he piles on.

Some upbeat tracks ("All the Old Showstoppers," for one) are cheerily presented but inevitably dull retreads of past glories; though their success rate varies, the fascinating tunes here are all ballads, lullabies, nearly dirges. Consider the title track, an adulterous pair's gentle lament, Neko and Carl almost stage-whispering "And you live with someone/I live with somebody too" as though those somebodies were sitting at the same table, their voices soon dissolving into purring background ooooooo's that come close to evoking Enya. For a band dedicated to brevity, soul, and wit, the nearly seven-minute "Unguided" arouses suspicion on principle, a somewhat plodding anthem designed for stadiums the Pornographers will never fill—if Morrissey can't fill Madison Square Garden, Carl, your odds ain't lookin' so hot. Elsewhere, he has described "Go Places" as his version of "Maybe I'm Amazed," which is self-explanatory. And the aptly titled "Adventures in Solitude" is a slow starter that suddenly erupts into a lovely, elegant, string-laden middle passage sung by Carl's niece, Kathryn Calder, a recent addition, less bombastic than Neko when less bombast is desired.

Packed onto one stage (minus the rarely surfacing Bejar) at Bowery Ballroom Tuesday night, the Pornographers traffic in not so much bombast as cheerful chaos, a sort of winsomely amateur talent-show affect, a slightly more palatable version of the lousy school band skronking through their section of the Simpsons theme song before Lisa's saxophone overpowers them. (That'd be Neko.) Like any self-respecting Loose, Unwieldy Rock Collective, there's tons of personnel here, augmented by cello, violin, and flute, but they lack the military precision of an Arcade Fire—you sense that they're all playing the same song, in the same key, at the same tempo, but they seem somewhat uncertain of this fact themselves. They're not great live, but they're usually fun, and your opinion this evening hinges on how much goofy stage banter you're prepared to tolerate. Neko is evidently having severe monitor issues and spends most of her downtime glaring at roadies and singing ah ah ah ah ah into her mic to see if the situation has improved; Carl and Kathryn distract us with a half-assed Abbott and Costello routine, nervously referencing other current indie-rock-pantheon bands (Spoon, the Shins) and recounting their favorite lines from Strange Brew. ("I gotta piss so bad I can taste it.") People seem slightly irritated by this, and loudly request "Letter from an Occupant."

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