I heard something last night that I don't think I've ever heard at a rock concert before. I was standing up front, just behind the photo pit, directly in Neko Case's line of fire, and after a few tunes, I started to notice something -- whenever she backed off the mic a bit so she could belt one out, I could clearly hear the direct sound of her unamplified voice, right in front of me, ringing out above all the amplified sounds coming from the fill speakers and stacks on either side. Girl's got pipes.
I'm aware this is not exactly an original observation -- who doesn't love Neko's massive, seductive voice, with those tasty post-Patsy Cline inflections? For that matter, who doesn't go a little weak in the knees reading her righteous anti-autotune rant? But, you know, now that I've finally heard her live, I realize she is an even better musician than I'd given her credit for. When I saw the Pornographers at Summerstage last year, Neko was not with them. Kathryn Calder sang Neko's parts, as she does whenever they appear without Ms. Case. Kathryn is a very, very good singer, and I am a big fan of her own band, Immaculate Machine (who will take the opening slot tonight for the second of the two Webster Hall hits -- I'm going to try to catch them at Union Hall on Nov. 11). But Neko is to the New Pornographers' array of harmonizing vocalists what a good concertmaster is to an orchestral string section, or a good lead trumpet player is to a big band -- she is the point, the focus of the sound; she sets the time and the phrasing and the rest of it by being so strong up top that everyone else can't help but fall into place. And she does this even when things get totally fucked up.
Neko didn't look like she was having much fun last night. It appeared that the transmitter for her wireless in-ear monitor wasn't working, because they swapped it out a few tunes into the set. And her mic was clearly set way too hot for such a big voice (like, hello?) -- squeals of feedback marred much of the early set, especially "Challengers." But where at Summerstage the sound issues caused the band to seriously flub their harmony vocals, at Webster, no matter how bad the sound problems got, the group vocals were unfailingly tight and in-tune. Kudos are due to everyone in the band for this, of course, but I think Neko deserves an extra gold star. She was a real pro, working very hard all night to keep everything together. Her most valuable contribution wasn't her solo leads -- although she slayed on "Mass Romantic" -- but the way she led by example on the thick background vocals and harmonized choruses, making them seem effortless and fun and not nearly as tough to sing as they actually are.
The other highlight was the appearance of part-time Pornographer Dan Bejar, who usually contributes three or four tunes to each record but almost never tours with them. The indie rock blogosphere clearly favors Bejar -- who plays the charismatic, idiosyncratic louche -- over Carl Newman, the dependable, somewhat dorky pop craftsman. As an unreconstructed dork, I know where my allegiances lie, but I also really like the contrast between the impeccable Newman songs and the looser, weirder Bejar songs. And while I don't really get what it is that Dan is after with his own band, his Pornographers tunes are mostly catchy enough that I find their quirks endearing instead of alienating. "Myriad Harbour" is his best yet -- in fact, it might even be the best song on Challengers. Bejar's onstage presence was really entertaining too -- kind of like Dean Martin meets Lou Reed or something. (Sorry, Carl. You know I still love you best. Even if the the NY Times indie rock pie chart dude has nothing but snark. If it's any consolation, I think "Failsafe" is a really good song too.)
All told it was a great gig, despite the (seemingly inevitable, with this band) technical glitches. As fantastic as the records are, some things you really need to experience live, and the chorus to "Bleeding Heart Show" is one of those things.
It occurs to me that the Pornographers are basically a prog pop band -- a bit like Queen without the camp. (I mean this as high praise, I assure you.) It helps enormously that they are, you know, actually poppy -- their hooks are so instantly appealing that they fool you into thinking that the songs are a lot more straightforward then they actually are.
I have to say, I am of the (possibly rude) opinion that there is very limited use for mixed meter in pop music – you always sense that the song, if it’s in 7/8 or a funnily divided 9/8 time stops being about the song and starts being about how clever one is to have achieved music in such a meter.
Though he is willing to grant absolution to Sufjan Stevens, "who seems to get away with it effortlessly (usually)."
While I am sure we can all name a lot of pop songs that are in odd meters for no good reason, and are vastly improved by just putting the damn thing in 4/4 (and, okay, having someone actually credible sing them), when it comes to elegant and subtle use of odd meter in pop songs, I think the New Pornographers cut Sufjan pretty badly. No disrespect to Sufjan, who is obviously brilliant -- and besides, I clearly have a much higher tolerance for odd-meter pop than Nico does. But since he brought it up... which song is more blatantly odd meter-y: "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" or "Mutiny, I Promise You"?
Photos below the fold....