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This Boy's Life Among the Electrical Lights - The New Pornographers at 9:30 Club

Life is change, expression, rebellion, experimentation, solidification, reinvention, acknowledgement, acceptance, and finally....change of a more permanent sort. Our tastes and fashions morph over time, with my journey winding its way through ragged goth to fratty prep to card-carrying REI member with a dash of Southern flair. Our musical tastes also change over time, with more science, better data, and deeper introspection fueling our re-examination for those of us who listen to new music after the age of 33...a rough age for Chris Farley, Nipsey Hussle, John Belushi, and Jesus Christ. My musical North Star has changed through the seasons of my life, those terrible early days listening to late-stage Pink Floyd and unfortunate hair bands that crystallized in my love of the dreary New Wave of Depeche Mode; my voyage Down Under to worship at the altar of Neil Finn and Crowded House; an early summer flirtation with the abstruse anxiety of Death Cab and the Shins.

One band that's been a constant companion over nearly the last two decades has been The New Pornographers, the multi-headed hydra of Canadian and American indie pop icons, instrumentalists, and singers. Why has this band stuck with me? I have a number of theories, but ultimately I really don't know. I've always been a sucker for a great hook, and New Pornos frontman and chief songwriter Carl "AC" Newman is a pop genius in the mold of Brian Wilson, without the mental illness (and in case you're wondering, IMHO Beach Boys > Beatles). Is it that they're contemporaries of mine? I suppose that's reasonable, but I'm as close in age to Ben Gibbard and James Mercer as I am to the Newman and New Pornos co-lead vocalist Neko Case. Perhaps my tastes didn't stylistically dovetail with Death Cab's stadium ambitions, or with Mercer firing the rest of the Shins for "aesthetic" reasons. As Chuck Palahniuk wrote, "We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off." I don't write this blog to get rich or famous, or further any agenda other than to share music I love with those who care to read and listen. I've loved every New Pornos album, and I've only gained a deeper appreciation for their artistry the farther down this road I go with them.

Photo by Brian Flores
Across eight albums, the Pornos have been with me through the hottest days of the summer of my life and into its early autumn. That realization was front and center in a yeoman-like set tonight at DC's 9:30 Club. Clocking in just shy of 2 hours and a few north of 20 songs, the Pornos—original members Newman, Case, John Collins, and Blaine Thurier, longtime members Kathryn Calder and Todd Fancey, and newer additions Joe Seiders and Simi Stone—demonstrated that they are a band both in and of the moment, their perpetual deconstruction, reconfiguration, and experimentation their key to their consistency and longevity. Newman's magnificent shock of red hair is mostly silver now, and Neko Case must have a portrait hanging somewhere showing the ravages of time. She's ageless, timeless, and without peer, as much the beating heart of the band as Newman is its mastermind. The newest Porno, Simi Stone, brings a drop of freshness to a band that lost a bit of offbeat charm when they announced that Dan Bejar was, at least momentarily, no longer in the lineup.

The band opened with "Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile", the lead single from In the Morse Code of Brake Lights. They veered pretty quickly from their latest release to "Dancehall Domine" (from their 2014 album Brill Bruisers), to "Sing Me Spanish Techno" and "Stacked Crooked" from their breakout Twin Cinema. While "Stacked Crooked" and Challengers' My Rights Versus Yours were unexpected additions back to their live playlist, the band largely hewed to what it does best—smart, high octane pop like "Moves" and "Crash Years" from their 2010 release Together, the unruly punk-inflected rock of "The Laws Have Changed" and fan singalong favorite "Testament To Youth In Verse" from their sophomore effort Electric Version. They filled in the cracks with the muscular layered vocals of Brill Bruisers' title track, and gave Neko Case and Kathryn Calder room to showcase the band's excellent balance of vocalists on songs like "Champions of Red Wine" and "Adventures in Solitude". 

The absence of Bejar meant the deeper and murkier end of the catalogue, songs like "Silver Jenny Dollar" and "Myriad Harbor", will probably not be featured on future setlists. Perhaps her vocal parts could be turned over to Stone to give them a new outlook and fresh coat of paint. Her violin adds depth and versatility to songs, but it would be nice to see her take on the occasional lead vocal.

This is less of a review and more of a personal reflection, but even as my tastes change I don't see my loyalty to the New Pornographers waning. I can unironically say that they are my favorite band, and I don't envision that changing as long as they keep doing what they dare to do.


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