The Trocadero, Philadelphia
Everyone remembers his first New Pornographers joke–how they’re better than the old pornographers, why their brand of porn is particularly “new” (they use lasers). However it comes out, the line has become something of an indie rock rite of passage, up there with buying Spiderland on vinyl despite not owning a record player, or apologizing to your cool atheist friends for Jeff Mangum’s “I LOVE YOU JESUS CHRIST” on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. “He’s kidding,” you say. “He actually hates Christ.”
My sister Maria, 15, is just starting to take an interest in this stuff (music, not porn). She goes to one of those all-girls schools in Philadelphia, if that means anything to you. What you listen to has serious import; corporate suspicions take seat, the dreams of real and authentic and whatever else take shape. Critical papers on The Matrix are written, then discussed. In high school I had a history of dating these types of girls, so it’s all very weird to me.
Still, she’s not totally indie-indoctrinated thank god, and it’s not like she has her head up the Arcade Fire’s ass or anything. “Just because people have heard of Radiohead doesn’t mean they’re not good,” Maria explained to me once, taking issue with the more obscure=better mentality that apparently some of her friends have grabbed onto already. “Radiohead suck for other reasons.”
A few weeks ago Maria asked if I had heard of the new and exciting power-pop outfit from Canada called the New Pornographers, and more importantly, whether I’d come home to take her to the show (her joke, kind of: “I’m worried what mom will think of their name, so I’ve just been calling them ‘the New Guys.'”). In other words, would I take her to her first legitimate concert–no parents, not in a stadium seat a billion miles away from a band she doesn’t really care about, not at a monster truck rally where they play “Highway to Hell” every fucking time Gravedigger revs his engine. Hey, better I take her to this than my brother Anthony, who’s been burning her the same goddamn CD of Aerosmith songs for five years now, just changing the track order.
I hadn’t seen New Pornographers in a while, since college actually. I like their shit in small doses, and when I pioneered the concept of iPod DJing back in 1999, before iPods and before New Porn, I definitely snuck “The Execution Day” in a few playlists between James’s “Laid” and the Fatboy Slim remix of “Brimful of Asha.” When a band calls itself a novelty or goof like New Porn did at first, I’m happy to play along, even if the lyrics struck me as a bit weightier than the band led on, even if the music, whose every second seemed stuffed in that mid-90s, 50-track debut rap album way, had a more than meets the eye sophistication to it. I had heard they cooled the fuck down on this new one Twin Cinema. By one friend’s account, the songs are “a little overwritten, but they aren’t just getting by on energy and charisma.” Good for them; my big New Porn story involves their keyboard player Blaine Thurier pouring triple sec in my eyes at a Lampoon afterparty, which was awesome, and I have the permanent retina damage to prove it.
So we made our way to Chinatown. The Trocadero, fyi, was the perfect spot for New Pornographers that night, precisely because it is Philly’s most reputable seat of old pornography–the burlesque house that my one grandfather boasted of playing trumpet at when he was 17 (“Your grandmother hated the Troc”) and my other grandfather boasted of sneaking in when he was 15 (“I met your grandmother at the Troc”).
Two openers past, New Pornographers walk out to “Here Come the Warm Jets,” a ruinously good entendre given their own name, though I don’t think people say “jet” anymore except as shorthand for “those motherfuckers Jet.” The hacks and saws, shouts and squirms of “Twin Cinema” start the set, not as much of a “maturing sound” statement as it is on the record because the band’s loud as shit and drummer Kurt Dahle, who’s really turned power-pop New Porn into a pretty heavy indie rock band, keeps twirling his drumsticks, throwing them up in the air and hitting the cymbal on the decline, smoking cigarettes–“quite the multitasker,” says Maria.
“Twin Cinema” less so than other songs maybe, the songwriting has moved away from full-on one-speed hyper-riff mode to expectation building and all-the-sudden turns of the knife. Live we feel the difference. They’ll play “The Laws Have Changed” and have this bizarrely age-dissociated crowd (half thirtysomethings, half teenagers) so inexplicably party-hardy, the only way I knew I was in Philly was the cheap drinks. Then Neko Case cuts into Carl Newman’s acoustic vamp for “These Are the Fables,” a song that plays like Natalie Merchant for four beats, then smack smack, Case connects her melody to dots off the page–one of those oh-shit moments punchline akin, cliche flipped. Very similar to what Deerhoof did with The Runners Four, the New Pornographers really have opened up their show to a lot more nuance, more “moments”, less of an overall buzz but ultimately more of one. They hit different parts of the heart, in other words–a bridgemaking quality to their show that lures people into their respective back catalogs, but also gives them bigger crowds.
Deerhoof beat New Pornographers at stage banter though–Deerhoof just don’t do it. Maybe the song delays and carnival band-quality rants about how drunk they were the night before and Neko-baits-prepubescent schmucks in the audience shtick adds to this clearly talented band’s nonchalant, having fun, man! appeal. It just grated on me, though Maria liked Case’s snipe at some college graduate in the front who flew too close to the show us your tits sun: “Are you wearing a Members Only jacket?”
New Porn know Case draws crowds too, musically and otherwise. Even the adverts for this tour make sure to note she’s definitely part of the show (after a few shows without her, at Summer Stage for instance). And even though Dan Bejar’s rare ragged chic upstaged her at times, Case mediated the flow of information from band to audience–an ambassador of sorts for a band whose songs, behind the thick and glorious harmonies, curiously grapple with twenties spent between the sheets, late residue of teenage awkwardness, actually becoming an adult, alcoholism and fear of long-time loneliness, stuff like that. No surprise, the best songs were the ones when Case, Newman, and Bejar sang together, blending by sheer force, reckless and powerful sounds from a project that’s peddling fun but just beginning to feel its own backdraft.
All this shit’s self-reflexive too, obviously. I liked my role of older brother guardian for the night, but quickly resented it, and after the show ended up (irresponsibly) taking Maria out on the town. We met up with these guys I know named Assman and Jake the Snake, and we tried to find a club called Fluid that none of us knew the address to. Maria, Assman suggested, should wait by the entrance and look for someone who looks like her, then ask to use her ID, though seconds later Assman admitted that was the stupidest thing he’d ever said. “You should just take your sister back home.”
Instead we snuck into a bar in Northern Liberties where they were playing LCD Soundsystem’s “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House,” and some guy was explaining to his friend that he had never heard of Daft Punk until that song. “I can’t believe James Murphy would listen to this…techno shit,” he scoffed. Maria rolled her eyes. “As much as everybody’s gonna deny it,” she explained, “Everybody loves techno music.” A little too prescient, a little too much Diet Coke–time to go home, both of us.