band’s qui­eter noise­mak­ers

Lesser-known mem­bers build New Pornog­ra­phers’ sound

Austin American-Statesman - - LIFE & ARTS - By Pa­trick Cald­well

Crank­ing up an al­bum from Cana­dian in­die pop su­per­group the New Pornog­ra­phers — pick any one of the five, from de­but “Mass Ro­man­tic” to this year’s “To­gether” — is roughly sim­i­lar to lis­ten­ing to sev­eral al­bums at the same time.

A half-dozen vo­cal­ists pile on one another dur­ing cho­ruses. Syn­the­siz­ers col­lide with pi­anos col­lide with Wurl­itzers. Man­dolins meet ban­jos and gui­tars both elec­tric and acous­tic. Seem­ingly dis­con­tent with their al­ready ex­pan­sive pal­ette af­ter 2003’s “Elec­tric Ver­sion,” the band brought more play­ers onto the field on their fol­low-up al­bums: a xy­lo­phone, a pump or­gan, a glock­en­spiel, strings and, on “To­gether,” horns on loan from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.

From the ca­coph­ony of the thun­der­ous, synth-sat­u­rated “Cen­tre For Holy Wars” to the waves of whis­tles and strings on “Crash Years,” a good New Pornog­ra­phers song ex­plodes with col­or­ful, dis­parate el­e­ments that shouldn’t work to­gether but some­how find a way. Think of it as the au­ral equiv­a­lent of a Jack­son Pol­lock paint­ing — messy, bold and beau­ti­ful.

You don’t get a sound like that without an aw­ful lot of cooks in the kitchen. Which makes it a shame that the ma­jor­ity of the praise rou­tinely show­ered on the best pop act to ever emerge from our neigh­bors to the north is fo­cused on three of the band’s eight full-time mem­bers: lead song­writer, singer, multi-in­stru­men­tal­ist and vi­sion­ary A.C. New­man, ec­cen­tric pop per­son­al­ity and con­tribut­ing song­writer Dan Be­jar and the full-throated, flame-haired Neko Case. As the stars of the New Pornog­ra­phers’ big three have risen, com­par­a­tively lit­tle at­ten­tion has been paid to the other fiveeighths of the band — an as­ton­ish­ingly ex­pan­sive, tal­ented group of play­ers, each with their own irons in the fire, that to­gether form some­thing of a Van­cou­ver, Bri­tish Columbia, A-Team.

So if you pay a visit to Stubb’s on Fri­day night to catch the band in its el­e­ment, take a mo­ment to sa­vor the skills of the less-her­alded New Pornog­ra­phers. Di­vert your eyes from the holy trin­ity — ad­mit­tedly dif­fi­cult in the case of in­die rock ob­jet de crush Case — and make note of the propul­sive pow­er­house drum­ming of Kurt Dahle. Or the giddy-yet-vul­ner­a­ble vo­cals of Kathryn Calder. Or the fu­ri­ous gui­tar of Todd Fancey.

That “su­per­group” tag rang a lit­tle false when first ap­plied to the New Pornog­ra­phers af­ter the re­lease of de­but “Mass Ro­man­tic” in 2000. The al­bum, three years in the mak­ing, was as­sem- bled by a hand­ful of mu­si­cians that had a cult fol­low­ing in Canada and lit­tle fame else­where. New­man, for­merly the front man of power pop act Zumpano, led the way, rop­ing in other play­ers from the Van­cou­ver scene. Case’s dark, throaty al­ter­na­tive coun­try had a few fans, and Be­jar had de­vel­oped a small fol­low­ing un­der the name De­stroyer, craft­ing Pave­ment-circa-“Wowee Zowee”-es­que pop odd­i­ties.

“Mass Ro­man­tic” sold mod­estly but col­lected am­ple ac­co­lades from the rock press, a Juno award and place­ment on mul­ti­ple best-of lists in 2001.

Each of the group’s fol­low­ing al­bums sold bet­ter and crested a larger wave of hype — and by now, that “su­per­group” de­scrip­tor feels more ac­cu­rate. New­man and Be­jar’s solo work has risen in pop­u­lar­ity.

And Case has ver­i­ta­bly ex­ploded, eclips­ing the New Pornog­ra­phers’ own fame — last year’s “Mid­dle Cy­clone” de­buted on the Bill­board charts at No. 3, am­ply beat­ing the Pornog­ra­phers’ best per­for­mance (No. 18, for “To­gether”).

All of which makes it un­der­stand­able that the New Pornog­ra­phers’ lesser­known mem­bers don’t get the ink they de­serve. But de­spite New­man, Be­jar and Case’s con­sid­er­able ta­lents, the New Pornog­ra­phers’ pop col­lage sound would never suc­ceed without the ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity of Dahle, Calder, Fancey, bas­sist John Collins and syn­the­sizer jockey Blaine Thurier.

Dahle, for in­stance, is the band’s se­cret weapon — maybe the best drum­mer in in­die rock to­day, he brings a widescreen crash and thun­der, es­pe­cially since “Twin Cin­ema,” which brought his an­i­mated pound­ing to the front of the mix on high­lights like “Use It.” Calder, orig­i­nally brought in to sub­sti­tute for Case on the road, has found an im­pres­sive voice of her own, and made a smash­ing vo­cal de­but on “Fail­safe” off 2007’s “Chal­lengers.” (She has a solo record due out later this year and also plays with Im­mac­u­late Ma­chine.)

Collins has the un­en­vi­able task of set­ting the rhythm for a band with a sound that’s all over the map — and pulls it off. And though New­man and Be­jar both play the gui­tar, it’s ex­pert shred­der Fancey who truly gives the New Pornog­ra­phers their gui­tar crunch; without him, the ex­plo­sive rocker and pseudo-ti­tle track off the band’s lat­est, “Your Hands (To­gether),” would limp rather than gal­lop.

The an­nals of su­per­group his­tory are lit­tered with sup­port­ing play­ers whose names might not have res­onated with mass au­di­ences —it’s the rare Trav­el­ing Wil­burys that can load an en­tire band with ringers — but who acted as the glue hold­ing more fa­mous per­son­al­i­ties to­gether. Think Fam­ily bas­sist Ric Grech an­chor­ing Gin­ger Baker, Eric Clap­ton and Steve Win­wood in Blind Faith. Or un­sung gui­tar hero and sound­track com­poser Dave Kushner keep­ing it real as the least vis­i­ble mem­ber of Vel­vet Re­volver.

But in the New Pornog­ra­phers, it’s the mar­ginal names who make up the ma­jor­ity — and when the rarely seen full lineup takes the stage at Stubb’s, it’s the lesser-known play­ers who will truly make the show sing.

So, in short: Sure, come for the names you know. Stay for those you prob­a­bly don’t.

Ja­son Creps

Blaine Thurier, left, John Collins, Kurt Dahle, A.C. New­man, Todd Fancey, Kathryn Calder and Neko Case and Dan Be­jar (not pic­tured) are the New Pornog­ra­phers. New­man, Be­jar and Case of­ten get the ku­dos that the oth­ers miss.

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