New Pornographers Bring Coed Harmonies, Hooks & Europop Rock to Sizzling Tour Opener in L.A.

Chris Willman
Neko Case and A.C. Newman of The New Pornographers perform at the Theatre at Ace Hotel on April 12, 2017 in Los AngelesĀ 

Even with Neko Case's star appeal & A.C. Newman's auteurism, the band's show at L.A.'s Theatre at Ace Hotel showed that collectivism is where it's at.

Nowadays, when a new collective of boldface talents like BNQT gets dubbed an “indie supergroup,” it’s no big deal, but the concept was more novel when The New Pornographers arose around the turn of the millennium. Coming up on the 20th anniversary of the band’s initial stirrings, they’re still around, against all odds, and more super-size than ever -- at least when it came to the sheer numbers onstage at the Pornographers’ tour opening Wednesday at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

“Welcome to our rock show,” said founder A.C. Newman. “Or your show. You are the ninth member. Or 10th. Depends how you count us. Or 11th.”

If the math seems confusing, there were eight bodies present and accounted for at the Ace, but Newman’s waffling alluded to the fact that there’ve been some dropouts. Or, as one audience member shouted early on, “Where’s Dan?” -- referring to Dan Bejar, the Destroyer frontman who until this latest round served as one of three lead singers in The New Pornographers, along with Newman and rock heroine Neko Case. Bejar is said to be on hiatus, as opposed to permanently out of the band, but his absence clarifies just what kind of supergroup The New Pornographers are… which is not really a supergroup at all, in the traditional sense of equal sharing among slumming stars, but an auteurist project of Newman’s that happens to have celebrities in the cast. Newman’s musical vision is one of the more satisfying ones in rock 'n' roll, and -- that audience yeller and Bejar’s talent notwithstanding -- the fact that you can now hear an entire show’s worth of his tunes is no cause for anything but further celebration.

The group’s brand-new album, Whiteout Conditions, is a blizzard of pop wonder, answering the question of what you might get if you put ABBA, Kraftwerk, Belle & Sebastian, the Cars, the Beach Boys, Gary Numan and Fairport Convention in a blender and then sprinkled it with some Pixies dust. For all those real or imagined influences, the sound The New Pornographers now have is a fairly consistent one, united by unabashedly nifty synth arpeggios, churning rhythm guitars, a deliciously high beats-per-minute ratio, and hooks that lead into hooks that lead into hooks. The 20-song set included six of the new songs, all of which sped by at a fast enough clip to make it seem like fewer.

It used to be that The New Pornographers seemed like a combination of different bands because Bejar’s writing style and lead vocals on the third or fourth of the material he was responsible for seemed so distinct from Newman’s. Nowadays, the NPs sound like two different bands because there’s such a split between Newman’s 2000s compositions and the fresh style he adopted on 2014’s transformative Brill Bruisers and the new follow-up. As cohesive as Whiteout Conditions is, any show that still includes the stuff from their indie salad days will be anything but. That’s no failing, live. The guitar-based power pop in older songs like “Mass Romantic” sounds almost primitivist now, by comparison -- and it’s also probably predestined to get a crowd on its feet a little more readily than the slightly more chilly, complicated, and studio-derived new fare. But if a Brian Wilson concert can contain both “Little Deuce Coupe” and a Pet Sounds segment, so can a New Pornographers show bear the weight of Newman’s basic and not-so-basic approaches to rocking out.

One of the glories of the New Pornographers has always been the rare blend of female and male voices, whether in harmonies or alternating solo moments. Now, that balance is more skewed, and not unhappily so. “This is the first show we’ve done with the female vocal attack,” Newman said, referring to the first-time appearance of three lead or backing female singers. “We spend a lot of time swooning at each other,” piped in Case, making a nod to Kathryn Calder, who was originally brought in to sing Case’s parts when she couldn’t make a tour, and new addition Simi Stone, who was brought in to make sure there were always female harmonies to be had on nights when Calder took over the leads. Apparently Newman has just decided to bring all of them along when possible, and the swooning is not limited just to onstage.

Now that Newman is writing all the songs and putting more of them together woodshedding in a studio by himself, it’s harder to mistake The New Pornographers for a democracy. But you wouldn’t mistake anyone for the star of the show but Case. In films, it’s not unheard of for a writer-director-actor to take on some pure acting roles, but there aren’t a lot of other examples in rock 'n' roll of someone who has an auteurist career in her own right humbling herself to stick with a side project where she’s interpreting someone else’s creations. As the New Pornographer who has the least time to devote to the band, Case had a music stand at her side to remember some of her lyrics Wednesday -- a prompter that in no way got in the way of her seeming to have as much fun as she would delivering her own material.

When Case and Newman harmonize on a rare acoustic-based song like “Adventures in Solitude,” there’s an audio illusion of them nearly taking on British accents, like Kirsty MacColl duetting with Stuart Murdoch. When she blends with the other two women, the group gets into seriously cerebral girl-group territory. And sometimes, left to her own vocal devices, she just gets to rocking in a different way than she ever would on a Neko Case record. She’s also one of the few female rock stars who’ll ever get into a prolonged discussion onstage about her “Dickensian-style approach” to hecklers.

There were none of those in attendance Wednesday, but the show did have a streaker, who may have been taking the group’s name too literally as he took part in an effort to get the seated crowd to stand up. What Newman called “the eternal battle: the sitters and the standers” finally resolved itself by the time the band climaxed the main set with the new “Avalanche Alley,” a frantic Europop rocker that lives up to its name, delivering a sense of impending global doom and thrilling kicks in equal measure. It’s not easy defining the exact ingredients of The New Pornographers’ greatness, but like the old pornography, you know it when you see it.

Set list:
High Ticket Attractions
The Laws Have Changed
Use It
Dancehall Domine
Testament to Youth in Verse
Whiteout Conditions
Champions of Red Wine
Adventures in Solitude
All the Old Showstoppers
This is the World of the Theatre
Sing Me Spanish Techno
Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk
Play Money
Mass Romantic
Avalanche Alley
Brill Bruisers
The Bleeding Heart Show