Watching the band take songs that sound forgettable on record and make them sound integral live is always a treat.
Roseland Theater, Portland, OR
Though the newest New Pornographer record, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, is nowhere near the sharpest record the North American power-poppers have put out, it continues their eight-album hot-streak for records that are impossible to sit still for. Twenty years after Mass Romantic, even at their worst, AC Newman and his merry band of characters are freakishly adept at making fun music that’s even more fun in front of an audience.
When the band played the Crystal Ballroom around the time of Brill Bruisers, the show proudly boasted the presence of Dan Bejar, there to support his final album with the group; few things can top the memory of Bejar wandering offstage between songs he didn’t sing on, then returning more noticeably drunk than the last time you saw him. Luckily, the remaining Pornographers didn’t actually need the quasi-cantankerous Bejar to put on a good show this time. The most visible members – Newman and Neko Case – have enough chemistry and stage presence to keep the audience’s attention just fine. It’s also worth noting that the show had a strict “No Photos” policy, hearkening back to Case’s Revolution Hall show five years ago.
Unsurprisingly, the major focus at the Roseland was on Morse Code. The album’s cover – a crumbling statue head – served as a backdrop, though the tasteful, multicolored galaxy of stars covering it was far more prominent. All but four songs from the album were brought out, and when made flesh, each of them sounded noticeably sharper and far more compelling than the studio version. Songs like “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Love” and “You’ll Need a Backseat Driver” seemed entirely at home amongst the band’s older material, both of them, much like the “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” were nearly impossible to resist singing along to.
When they weren’t playing from the Morse Code songbook, the band also paid tribute to every single other album they’ve made, from “Mass Romantic” to “The Laws Have Changed,” all the way through to “Play Money” from Whiteout Conditions and “Champions of Red Wine” from Brill Bruisers. More beloved albums like Twin Cinema, Challengers, and Brull Bruisers got a trio of songs, each set including at least one show-stopping Case-led track – “Challengers,” “The Bones of An Idol,” and “Champions of Red Wine” were all a reminder that Newman might write most of the songs, but without Bejar, Case is the true powerhouse.
Between songs, Case and Newman chatted with each other and the audience. Despite not having Kelly Hogan – her foul-mouthed, unfuckwithale partner-in-crime when performing solo – Case stole the show, backhandedly spilling her love of the Roseland and the defunct Satyricon while helping deal with Newman exhaustedly badmouthing former tour mates Belle & Sebastian. Later, a joke about former opener Vampire Weekend (though whether or not a band that only opened for them once should count became a heated debate) spurred a back-and-forth about bands that have opened for them before blowing up, like My Morning Jacket and Fleet Foxes – “Let’s stand here and talk about all the bands that are more popular than us!” Newman said with a chuckle while tuning his guitar.
Watching the band take songs that sound forgettable on record and make them sound integral live is always a treat, and watching The New Pornographers do so this deftly helps one realign their thinking of the band. It’s not that they’re running out of steam at all – AC Newman may have hit a creative rut, but the band he’s in is still fun and exciting. Even if Morse Code isn’t Twin Cinema, when you can watch them dial in and rock “Colossus of Rhodes,” you can barely notice the difference.