- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

The New Pornographers, indie-pop musicians from Vancouver, British Columbia, are darlings of the critical press. But at the Black Cat Sunday night, they could have been mistaken for roadies. That’s because they don’t employ any.

They schlep their own gear; they do their own sound checking; they do last-minute tweaks to their stage setup right up to showtime — the kind of journeyman stuff that gets anonymous guitar-techs heckled off the stage in arenas.

Yes, we should all be shaking our fists at the gods of big music. Why aren’t the New Pornographers rich and famous rock stars? Why is it that when their record label gave me the cell-phone number of the group’s road manager, it was that of the drummer and not some logistics dude?

A quick inventory of the fundamental hit-making necessities of modern pop music:

Catchy melodies. Check. The Pornographers have a bottomless supply, as demonstrated on a pair of albums called “Mass Romantic” and the recently released “Electric Version.”

Quick-and-dirty song lengths that don’t tax attention spans. Check. Nearly every number is a three-minute marvel of concision.

Choruses that Velcro themselves to your brain. Check. Chief songwriter Carl Newman may be grad-schoolish with his lyrics, but he always gets to the hooky point by the time of the chorus.

Danceable beats. Check. The Pornographers aren’t funky by any means, but drummer-vocalist Kurt Dahle is an energetic pounder, especially on those tom-tommy jungle rhythms that make you want to do that vertical spring-action dance.

How about, for good measure, a bombshell female singer? Yep, the New Pornographers have one of those, too, and her name is Neko Case, an alt-country siren and habitue of roots-rocky venues such as Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington. (Incidentally, she has a gig of her own at, go figure, the Black Cat July 27.)

The New Pornographers may not be gracing glossy-mag covers yet, but these Canadians (Miss Case is an honorary Canadian: Born in Alexandria, she had a stint in Vancouver), are far from bitter about it. Mr. Newman proudly wore a “Late Show With David Letterman” T-shirt, a souvenir, I’m guessing, from the band’s June 17 appearance on the CBS variety show, and offhandedly palavered with the audience between songs.

He even tolerated, if a bit wearily, fans barking out “Free Bird.”

“It’s good that you yell out song suggestions,” guitarist and singer Mr. Newman said. “It helps us figure out what to play.” For a band with just a couple of albums to its name, figuring out what to play consisted mostly of song order rather than song choice, although they have been known to break out the odd Nick Cave cover here and there.

The Pornographers ran through nearly all of “Version” and mined about half of “Romantic” during a one-hour-and-change set that was all pep and vigor and jumpy energy. Songs such as “The Electric Version,” “The End of Medicine” and “July Jones” took on an added charge of vitality, with Mr. Dahle’s drums quite prominent in the band’s live mix as compared to their somewhat muted presence on the records.

But the essential formula remained the same: scratchy guitar tones and peppery classic-punk riffs; antique synths and reedy-sounding keyboards (played by a chipper Blain Thurier); and Mr. Newman’s voice — wavering between high tenor and choir-boy soprano, it’s an instrument unto itself, as is Miss Case’s.

The Pornographers’ salad of musical elements and rudiments tosses in the Kinks’ midperiod concept rock experiments with ‘80s new wave and power pop. They take Brian Wilson’s syncopated approach to vocal harmonies and fuse it to chunky electric guitars.

On top of all that, there’s Mr. Newman’s inveterate wordplay. It’s a special talent — Mr. Newman channels Elvis Costello when he flaunts it — that can deliver a line such as “Introducing for the first time / pharaoh on the microphone” without sounding pretentious or losing pop accessibility.

(The New Pornographers must be the only band whose fans hum the melodies to their songs not only because they’re irresistible, but also because the lyrics are so often indecipherable that you can’t actually sing them.)

Miss Case sang harmony vocals and pitched in the occasional lead, too. Her spotlight moments, such as the title track off “Mass Romantic,” “To Wild Homes” and “Letter From an Occupant,”were all showstoppers Sunday. There’s no getting enough of the twangy lushness of Miss Case’s voice, which, favoring as she does mega-doses of reverb, sometimes has a noirish back-alley menace to it.

She’s the Pornographers’ ace in the hole, as if they needed one. Musically, the New Pornographers are a gold mine. It’s too bad fool’s gold is what sells these days.

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