The New Pornographers Bring 'Bruisers' to New York's Hammerstein Ballroom: Concert Review

Matthew Allen
Live, the Canadian indie rockers are less than the sum of their parts or the delight of their records.

Why aren't the New Pornographers a more exciting live act?

No artists of their generation have made more consistently thrilling pop music. Individually, the members of this Canadian supergroup lead bands whose live shows ooze personality and charisma; these quite different personalities would seem to complement each other beautifully. But put them on a stage together, and the delivery can suffer from an energetic monotony, a sonic sameness their carefully produced records usually avoid. At the Hammerstein Ballroom Monday, a packed room of middle-aged fans managed to convey their love for the group while looking lifeless enough to inspire one in their midst to eventually shout "No, really — you can dance, it's okay!" Dancing did not ensue.

"We've never played this place. It's quite big," admitted frontman A.C. Newman, as if in acknowledgement of acoustics that all but destroyed show openers The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, making them sound like they were playing at the bottom of an empty oil drum. The room was kinder to the eight-piece NPs, only really turning on them when all four key vocalists sang a canon-turned-caterwaul on "Jackie."

They began with the title cut from the new LP Brill Bruisers, whose pealing, chime-like introductory vocals announce the bigness of a record nervy enough to invoke that hallowed ground of pop the Brill Building. (The onetime hub of music-biz activity stands just fifteen blocks north of the Hammerstein; the group played a surprise album-release show there before launching this fall tour.) The allusion is in one sense puzzling: While most of those who toiled in the Brill — think Leiber and Stoller, Pomus and Shuman — were cranking out hits for others to sing, it's hard to imagine any other artist having better results with an A.C. Newman or Dan Bejar song than they do themselves, whether with their bandmates here or in their increasingly brilliant solo outings. (Neko Case, whose songs are just as distinctively her own, almost never writes for the band.)

But the title does set the stage for a collection of songs whose focus on the creative process is sometimes very explicit: As Bejar sang in "Born With a Sound," "I had a sound in my head / But I couldn't find the words / To get it out." (Can it be true that Bejar, a master of gnomic lyrics and trenchant observation, ever has trouble with words?) Bejar did a tight bow after that song and trotted off stage right, abandoning his cohort as he did whenever he wasn't singing lead on a song. Newman and Case stuck around throughout, backing Bejar when they weren't in the spotlight — as on his "Jackie, Dressed in Cobras," one of few instances here in which a song throttled forth more aggressively than it does on record. There, briefly, Bejar's spit-the-words-out insistence made the concert a performance.

Case may have shown us her gentler side, taking lead on the midtempo and deeply melancholy "Champions of Red Wine," but that didn't keep her from issuing a sharp threat to a discourteous audience member: "I'm gonna beat your f—ing ass," she said to a man whose phone camera was shining a bright flash in her eyes. He shut it off quickly, and Case forgot the bad vibes in plenty of time to raise goosebumps singing "if I see no hope for me / I still see hope for you" behind Newman on his "Wide Eyes" — a new song very close in spirit to his career-best 2012 solo record Shut Down the Streets.

Newman also broke hearts dueting with keyboardist Kathryn Calder on the Challengers song "Adventures in Solitude." But he devoted more of the set to big arena-ready numbers from the new disc, songs like "Backstairs" and "Dancehall Domine," which draw on synthetic sounds from the '70s and '80s without ever letting up on a churning rhythm section. The latter song is as overpoweringly catchy as any the band has recorded (which is appropriate for a portrait of an adored pop star), and it held its own as the sole new tune among old favorites like "Use It" and "The Bleeding Heart Show" in the night's two Bejar-free encores. The closer, Newman's "The Slow Descent into Alcoholism," was appealingly loose, a singalong from the band's 2000 debut that sent fans into the night remembering why they've kept coming back for almost fifteen years.

Set List:

Brill Bruisers
Myriad Harbour
Moves
War On the East Coast
Sing Me Spanish Techno
Crash Years
All the Old Showstoppers
Jackie, Dressed in Cobras
Another Drug Deal of the Heart
The Laws Have Changed
You Tell Me Where
Testament to Youth in Verse
Wide Eyes
Marching Orders
Adventures in Solitude
Jackie
Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk
Backstairs
Silver Jenny Dollar
Champions of Red Wine
Born With a Sound
Mass Romantic

Encore:

Challengers
Dancehall Domine
The Bleeding Heart Show

Encore 2:

Use It
The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism

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