Here’s a question for you. Who exactly are the New Pornographers? Any band member or song title will do. Even a country of origin? I’m going to have to rush you. No?
If you managed to pull anything out of the ether for the above (answers: A rock supergroup from Canada, whose members include solo artist Neko Case and bits of Destroyer, and who’ve soundtracked most self-respecting American TV shows of the last 10 years) you’re doing better than most. Because to even the blog-reading public, The New Pornographers are a formless idea fluttering in the back of the head. They aren’t the best band you’ve never heard of – they’re the best band you know you should have listened to, but, hey, there’s a new Foals album out.
It’s partly their own fault. Despite releasing five critically-lauded albums in 10 years, their disparate nature has led to infrequent touring and, with the weight of most of the band’s work falling on sole full-time member AC Newman, to fans it often seems like an irregular, jocular family reunion that’s over far too quickly. Tonight’s gig at the only two-thirds full Shepherd’s Bush Empire is their most fully formed gathering yet – apparently the first time they’ve all played under the same banner in the UK – and is suitably celebratory.
On record, the band are sometimes a frustrating proposition, mixing The Posies‘ straightforward sugar-sweet powerpop with The Shins‘ quirky melodical deconstruction. Live, however, they are a powerful, fully-formed entity with the seven piece (with Newman and Case sharing vocal duties) tearing through a 22-song set in just under an hour and a half with little pause for breath. Perhaps befitting a group that’s always seemed in it for the hell of it rather than, say, flogging records, there’s an admirable spread of tracks across the band’s ouvre, including a bunch of oldies and rarities for obsessives, like the ’50s jive of Mass Romantic or the Beatlesesque Testament To Youth In Verse.
The crowd lap up every power chord and harmony. They’re as you’d find at any good Teenage Fanclub gig; wide eyed, bespectacled and simply delighted to be in the presence of their charming and slightly obscure heroes. Each song is greeted with a good-natured exhalation of delight, while someone actually apologises for standing on this writer’s bag in the proto-moshpit during Your Hands (Together). If a band can be judged on the passion and accommodation of its fans, The New Pornographers deserve to be selling this venue out a few times over.
So good are the songs across the board that it’s a while before you begin to realize the slight problem that lurks at the heart of the band. For those without a prior knowledge of their output, each song does begin to blend into the next. They have a beautifully simple knack for crafting idiosyncratic, four-minute blasts of harmony, but there’s little to differentiate in tone or style between their debut single and their 10th. It’s no problem for the converted, but those looking for evolution between records, or a breakout hit, may be waiting a long time.
Yet, the new songs still do sound damn good – the Case-fronted Crash Years and the brilliant, driven Up In The Dark are showstoppers, displaying both the band’s musical chops and a neat line in poetic couplets (“It gets weaker, watch it go/ Wrap yourself around me in/The shadow show”). They aren’t trying anything they haven’t done before, but when they’re this ahead of the game it scarcely matters.