Rock Roundup

New Pornographers Best Pop-Rock Group?

The best of this century, our critic says -- and the best of this week’s top five shows.

By - Nov 11th, 2014 10:48 am
New Pornographers. Photo from facebook.

New Pornographers. Photo from facebook.

Top Show: New Pornographers, Thursday, November 13, Pabst Theater

When the New Pornographers issued their first album, Mass Romantic, near the end of 2000, it seemed as if they had hurled sonic balloons filled with Day-Glo paint to explode against the smudged, gray wall of indie music.

The above paragraph isn’t the most ludicrous word picture I’ve ever drawn for this merry band. I’ll spare you the craziest one. I will not, however, back down from my belief that the New Pornographers are one of the best pop-rock groups of all time, and the best pop-rock group of the 21st century.

Songwriting is a key reason: although Dan Bejar and Carl Newman (of Canadian bands Destroyer and Zumpano, respectively) tend to write separately, and although Newman (also called Allan Carl or A.C.) writes the majority of the material, on each record the sequencing rubs their styles together until they combust.

Singing is important, too: Bejar and Newman are complementary and tuneful vocalists, and if Kathryn Calder (Newman’s niece) was originally brought in only as a live replacement for increasingly busy ringer Neko Case, she has since found a firm seat in the band for her own excellent voice.

The New Pornographers have maintained impressive quality control over six albums, and it’s possible the refusal of mediocrity has pushed the individual members, particularly Newman and Case, toward new and higher zeniths on their solo work.

Which isn’t to say there haven’t been variations: 2007’s Challengers, for example, was almost sepia in tone compared to the bright chromatic bursts of Mass Romantic, and this year’s Brill Bruisers approaches the dread idea of pop-rock “maturity” with understated flamboyance.

Newman, Bejar, Case, and Calder are all present on the current tour, so the New Pornographers have access to their full spectrum. Almost exactly 14 years after Mass Romantic, they are the yellow sunshine and blue skies in the bleak late autumn.


Wednesday, November 12: Quintron and Miss Pussycat at Cactus Club (w/Babes)

Robert Rolston, he who is Quintron, has gained a measure of notoriety for inventions like the light-activated “Drum Buddy” and the “Weather Warlock,” an analog synthesizer given some of its cues by meteorological events. On tour and on record, his bag is all about carnival-rock music.

He usually works with Miss Pussycat, a.k.a. his wife Panacea Theriac, to create atmospheres that wouldn’t be out of place in classic cartoons or classic horror movies. On his latest disc, this year’s Spellcaster II: Death in Space, Quintron displays his usual flair for organ music, and he can be as inventive onstage as he is off it.


Friday, November 14: Bleachers at Turner Hall Ballroom

Depending on how you feel about Fun.’s “We Are Young,” Sara Bareilles’s “Brave,” and Taylor Swift’s “Out of the Woods,” you will either credit or blame Jack Antonoff, who co-wrote each of those songs. (He’s also Fun.’s guitarist.) Whichever way you view his share of the responsibility, you cannot deny his aptitude for pop.

Depending on how you feel about evocations and echoes of 1980s popular culture, particularly that decade’s music and movies, you will apportion further credit or blame to Antonoff for Bleachers, his newest project. Whichever way you view his larger share of the responsibility, you cannot deny the brimming passion on the first Bleachers full-length, this year’s Strange Desire.


Friday, November 14” “Kneel to Neil”: A Neil Young Tribute at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn

When considering Neil Young’s uneven  2014—during which he’s divorced Pegi, his wife of 36 years; issued two strange records: the Voice-O-Graph covers disc A Letter Home and the fully orchestrated Storytone; and published Special Deluxe, a rambling second volume of memoirs—we should remember how good he can be.

And how inspiring, when he’s carved musical brilliance from chaos (such as the turmoil that has often gripped Crazy Horse or his interactions with Crosby, Stills & Nash). “Kneel to Neil,” a local tribute to that inspiration, marks its tenth anniversary with bands like the Aimless Blades, the Carolinas and the Whiskeybelles.

Proceeds go to WMSE and the Bridge School, an institution co-founded by the aforementioned Pegi for children with severe speech and physical impairments.


Monday, November 17 and Tuesday, November 18: The Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas Rocks! Extravaganza at Northern Lights Theater, Potawatomi Bingo Casino

Christmas and rock ‘n’ roll generally do not and should not mix, as proven with nearly scientific conclusiveness by the travesty—of both Christmas and rock ‘n’ roll—that is Trans-Siberian Orchestra. However, the Brian Setzer Orchestra makes the combination swing in the musical sense of that verb.

Former Stray Cats frontman and constant rockabilly fan Setzer formed the BSO at around the same time jump blues and swing experienced a 1990s revival. The revival faded a long time ago, but Setzer has kept jumping, jiving and wailing…and released at least three BSO albums that have spiked the eggnog with brass.

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