A few years back, I was standing in a dark and dingy night spot, somewhere in vicinity of Wrigley Field, angrily sipping an overpriced triple vodka on the rocks, very pissed off that they’d banned indoor smoking in Chicago, the birthplace of the smoke-filled rooms that gave birth to several of our nation’s leaders.
Fucking Americans have no sense of tradition!
The reason for my visit to the nanny state of Illinois was to attend a boring training seminar that my boss had been pushing on me for some time. The prospect of five days of entrapment in a lifeless hotel conference room full of drones mouthing platitudes and talking about things no one with an active brain could possibly give a shit about didn’t exactly tickle my fancy, so I kept putting it off. He brought it up again in one of our completely useless weekly conversations called “one-on-ones” and I promised him I’d look into it first thing.
Okay, so it turned out to be the sixth thing, but I did look into it. I saw that the next available date for the conference involved a trip to Chicago, so I immediately checked out who was playing in Chicago that week to see if it was worth the trip.
The New Pornographers! Windy City, here I come!
I already had the first three albums from these occasional collaborators, and I’d just bought a copy of their latest, Challengers. I admired A. C. Newman for his exceptional melodic talent, Neko Case for her strong, liquid voice and the rhythm section of John Collins and Kurt Dahle for their powerful rhythmic support. Each of their first three albums had featured at least one of the best melodic rock songs I’d ever heard: “Letters from an Occupant,” “Mass Romantic” and “The Laws Have Changed.” I knew that since they were based in Vancouver that I didn’t really have to travel that far to see them, but I’d never been to Chicago and my employer was going to send me on their dime. This was a no-brainer, even for a blonde!
As it turned out, the show wasn’t until Thursday night, so by the time I arrived at the club I was seriously drained from four long days spent with really boring people talking in buzzwords I didn’t want to understand, making lame inside jokes about shit that didn’t matter. I knew they were bullshit, they knew they were bullshit, but that shared knowledge did not motivate them to drop the façade and get real for a single moment.
So, I arrive at the club with the sour afterburn of pointless networking in my brain, find out there’s nowhere to sit, so I have to find a place to stand where my relatively limited height might give me a chance of actually seeing the fucking band, which means I can’t give up my spot to go outside and have a cigarette, so I have to stand through a noisy, interminable set from the shit warmup band, during which I have to tell a dozen guys who stop to admire my tits to fuck off, and I have to nurse my vodka because I can’t go to the bar to get a refill and I’ll be damned if I’m going to ask one of these creepy loser guys to buy me a drink because he’ll probably think that small favor will earn him a shot at my pussy and there’s no fucking way that’s going to happen, and goddammit, The New Pornographers had better be fucking great tonight!
When they finally hit the stage, it didn’t look good. Wearing a cheap, faded white top with her hair pinned back with plastic K-mart hair clips, Neko Case looked like she’d just gotten off her day job cleaning toilets and didn’t have time to change. The other band members seemed shy, awkward and devoid of energy. I took a deep breath to try to prevent my soul from sinking into the depths of despair.
Then, wham! Opening with “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth,” a song that requires every single person to be on point from the get-go, The New Pornographers made every little molecule of bad energy vanish in about twenty seconds. Neko and Kathryn Calder hit their harmonic spots perfectly on the third line and from that moment forward I was completely enthralled by the incredible sound and energy coming from that stage. It turned out to be the best show I would see that year, compensating in full for the pain I had to endure to see it.
New Pornographers fans seemed to resist Challengers at first. This happens any time a band seeks to expand their field of operations. Challengers seemed relatively subdued in comparison to Twin Cinema, their previous album, which was in fact a pretty impressive piece of work. Comparing the two now with the benefit of longer perspective, it’s pretty clear to me that Challengers is not only superior to Twin Cinema, it’s the best album they ever made: a rich, melodic and exciting album with stronger unity despite the greater variation in sound.
Twin Cinema opens with a wild guitar riff; Challengers opens in relative stillness: single strummed chords from a mandolin, French horn echoing the theme and A. C. Newman gently carrying the melody of “My Rights Versus Yours.” The women enter at the end of the verse with sweet and gentle oohs that are spot on. Percussion and bass arrive in the second verse, and the song doesn’t kick into a higher gear until the end of that verse. From there it’s a glorious mix of melody and harmony with strong support from the rhythm section; the song flows so easily and naturally you wish it would go on forever. An unusual opening indeed, but an exceptionally beautiful one.
The absolutely remarkable “All the Old Showstoppers” also begins in relative quiet, with crunchy guitar turned down low, a short piano pattern and a restrained lead vocal from A. C. with a touch of harmony over the bouncy rhythmic pattern that will eventually dominate the song. This quiet ends suddenly in drum-pounding orchestral burst, to return to that bouncy, lilting rhythm that is incredibly infectious and becomes stronger and stronger as the song proceeds. The fills and touches in this song are absolutely marvelous: the perfect guitar fill here, the perfect background vocals there, and always the fabulous bass and drum combination of Collins and Dahle. I’ve read descriptions of A. C. Newman’s lyrics as “Dada-esque,” meaning they usually make little apparent sense. While that is certainly true in “All the Old Showstoppers,” somehow you can’t help singing this song and its mysterious lyrics with real feeling. A. C. Newman not only has a gift for melody, but he is also extraordinarily sensitive to the melody contained in the sound of the words; many of his lyrical choices seem to be made more on the basis of how they sound in the context of the music rather than what they might or might not mean. Since McCartney did just that with the line “The movement you need is on your shoulders” in “Hey, Jude,” we can say definitively that this atypical approach to lyrics is supported by precedent.
“Challengers” comes next, giving Neko Case a chance to show her stuff on a more reflective piece than the power pop tunes she’d been assigned previously. A lovely song with the usual gorgeous harmonies and soft mandolin supporting a restrained but strong lead vocal, it’s more than worthy of its position as the title track of the album.
Next is one of Dan Bejar’s songs, “Myriad Harbour.” Although this qualifies as one of his better efforts, the truth is that there are certain voices I cannot abide and Dan Bejar’s is one of them (along with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Ozzy Osbourne). Luckily for me, “Myriad Harbour” is followed by the aforementioned “All the Things that Go to Make Heaven and Earth,” providing ample assurance to those fans wondering about the comparative quiet of the album that The New Pornographers could still rock with the best of them.
Kathryn Calder gets a rare shot at a lead vocal in “Failsafe,” supported by Neko Case’s harmonies. Her more breathy voice works exceptionally well on this very sexy song that relies more heavily on electronics than any other song on the album. Next up is “Unguided,” a pleasant little song, but one of the weaker tracks on the album, as is Dan Bejar’s “Entering White Cecilia.” That’s not the case with “Go Places,” another reflective Neko Case performance that’s one of my favorite songs on Challengers, featuring a line I could use as one of my personal mottoes, “Yes, the heart should always go one step too far.”
After two softer songs, the band kicks into high gear with the spirited, “Mutiny I Promised You,” colored by flute, a superb bass part and a driving, confident drum backing. This is another one of my favorites where the enigmatic lyrics work because of the way they enhance the flow of the music. It’s followed by the quieter “Adventures in Solitude,” a sweet song sung in largely in two-part harmony marked by A. C. Newman oscillating between falsetto and his normal voice in the quiet passages; the strings are particularly lovely in this song, particularly during the whirling passage of complex harmonies towards the end of the song. This is the way my iTunes playlist for Challengers ends; in the real-world version, it ends with Dan Bejar’s “The Spirit of Giving,” a song I uncheck in iTunes for reasons mentioned above. Sorry!
I hadn’t heard Challengers for quite a while before writing this review, and I have to say, it’s even better than I remembered it to be. A. C. Newman has such a way with melody and the feel of a song that I consider him one of the top songwriters today despite his curious lyrics. Few bands have ever done vocals as well as The New Pornographers, both in terms of arrangement and execution. I am always knocked out by that rhythm section, which is certainly the most underrated aspect of this remarkable group of musicians. Challengers is an exceptional album that will last for the ages.
If you’d like to get a quick idea of this band’s range, ability to kick ass and have a fabulous time doing so, watch their version of “Your Daddy Don’t Know” a hit song released by the band Toronto in 1982 (which date will explain the costumes the band dons in the film). It’s a gas, gas, gas!
The vast majority of inhabitants in the United States associate Canada’s contributions to the world of music with Celine Dion. Those who profess to have more extensive knowledge of the subject may cite William Shatner’s unforgettable version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Most people in the States don’t realize that Neil Young, Shania Twain and Joni Mitchell hail from Canada. The truth is that most Americans consider their neighbors to the north as “Americans-lite,” or as nice people suffering under the oppression of socialized medicine.
I am here to wake my fellow countrypersons to one fact: some of the best indie music today is of Canadian origin. I submit Exhibit A for your consideration: the album The Poet’s Dead by a band that goes by the name of Rah Rah, whose origins have been traced to Regina, Saskatchewan.
The Canadian music press has referred to Rah Rah as an “indie darling.” While I love the independence and the artistic license that label provides, it’s a double-edged sword. As Michael Crossley so bluntly observed in French Letters’ “When It Mattered,” the expanded modern definition of independence means “independent of distribution, promotion and attention.” This unfortunate situation is particularly painful when you hear a group of deeply talented musicians like Rah Rah, who combine superb musicianship, palpable energy and extraordinary songwriting abilities to create a fresh and delightfully entertaining listening experience.
A Poet’s Dead kicks off with “Art and a Wife,” Marshall Burns’ ode to the endless conflict between the love and stability found in “normal life” and the pursuit of one’s art. The song begins with pounding drums leading into an extraordinarily catchy and memorable guitar riff. Marshall then sings about the beginnings of his journey as a musician, a launch that was driven more by instinct than intent (“I used to have a guitar/Though I didn’t know what for”). As he continues to improve his guitar skills, eventually the passion for music merges with passion for women:
And then I got a band
We drove around in a van
Played some shows got some fans
We crushed a few cans/drove around in a van
I used have a song
I would sing for every girl
I used to want to make out
Make out with every girl
Now that he’s been there/done that, he wants something more, a life that integrates two traditionally opposite drives: “And now I just want a life/Full of art and a wife.” Such a statement challenges the classic Twain-Hemingway-Henry Miller mythology that women represent civilizing influences that are poison to the artist, but that view is so 20th Century. The last two verses are somewhat ambiguous: one appears to be sung by “the wife” in the tale (played by Kristina Hedlund), who seems ready to check out of the relationship:
I used to have your love
But you tore it from my hands
You tore it from my heart
Like a soiled work of art
It ain’t ever goin’ back to how it was
The second is the narrator’s pleading response, arguing that despite any troubles they’ve had he’s still the guy she fell in love with—the person he revealed only to a very select few:
You still believe in me
In the gospel that I sung
In the poetry I wrote
Like a king behind his moat
The cat I hid away from everyone
Marshall’s vocal is first-rate, and I love the way he changes octaves throughout the song, a simple technique that amps up the excitement level. With strong performances from the entire band, “Art and a Wife” is both an exciting piece of music and a fabulous piece of poetry.
It’s also a hard act to follow, but Erin Passmore more than succeeds with “Prairie Girl,” forming the best one-two opening punch I’ve heard to open an album in a very long time. A uniquely sensitive vocalist with fabulous command of the scale and superb instincts for phrasing, she is absolutely mesmerizing in this character sketch of a woman dealing with life on the cold, lonesome prairie. The lyrics describe a character locked in grim acceptance of the prairie girl stereotype, cursed with a feeling of stuckness—trapped in a social script of behaviors, stereotypes and expectations that inevitably lead to disappointment:
I am a darling, I am a dear
I’ll cut your neck if you get too near
When the chips start falling
I’ll stay here . . .
She was yours as soon as you left me
I doused my life in water and whiskey
No place I’d rather be
than this lonesome prairie
Rah Rah makes superb use of dynamics in this song, with sudden shifts from loud to quiet and back that add to the song’s drama.
“First Kiss” is about the collision of self-doubt and “the yearn to touch,” featuring a poignant set of lyrics and an attention-grabbing bass part. “20’s” is a rather wistful driver with the chorus, “I’ll spend my twenties on rock and roll/I’ll spend my thirties feeling old.” This is where I really missed the presence of the digital booklet, as the lyrics for the song were a bit too hard to grasp; still, the track moves along nicely with some excellent guitar and vocal contributions.
“Dead Men” begins with a captivating theme featuring violin and guitar that reemerges throughout the song. As the tune progresses, we hear clever rhymes (“finish” and “British”), interesting interplay between choral voices and guitar, and a thrilling drum punctuation. This song also deals with life in Regina, and the curious human attachment to one’s place of origin, even if the place is a dump:
What does it mean to come from this city?
I love this place
It’s in my veins
But it ain’t poetry.
The title track is a bouncy number with some unexpected chord changes that make it a compelling listening experience. The band performs with energy, really letting it out on the lines “Like all of us SOCIALISTS/Born to hope, raised to fail.” The last verse is performed over a background of steady hand-clapping, a simple human technique that emphasizes the collaborative nature of the band and encourages the listener to get off his or her ass and join in. “The Poet’s Dead” is an absolute gas, and a solid demonstration of Rah Rah’s power and talent.
One reviewer commented that the album falls flat towards the end. Since she took about 11 seconds to write her four-and-a-half paragraph review, methinks the lady doth protest too much. She even comments that, “The intro to ‘I’m A Killer’ takes on an odd electronic sound to the keys that feel out of place within the rest of the album.” I think that “odd electronic sound” is an organ, an instrument that I believe has been around for a few centuries. Before I get off on a rant on lazy music reviewers and the appalling disrespect they show to artists in general, I will defend the song “I’m a Killer” as a unique and mysterious piece with a fascinating arrangement backing Erin Passmore’s ironically angelic vocals (ironic because, well, her character is a killer). I could listen to this woman sing all day, and I loved her EP, Downtown.
“Run” starts with a hot scratchy guitar chords before Kristina Hedlund enters with her more ethereal vocal style. Her voice works well with the solid drumming and rhythmic support from the band and is an excellent example of good indie rock. Next comes another killer song, “Fake Our Love,” a solid ass-kicker aided by some great syncopation, superbly sweet background vocals and more best-of-class lyrics dealing with the guilty satisfaction and lingering discomfort associated with temporary liaisons:
If you can wait for me by the side of the stage
I promise that for you I will act half of my age
Like we’re young, still in love, full of rage.
You look so beautiful with your eyes down low
I’m just in town for the night but I’ll put you on the guest list for the show,
We’ll get drunk, fake our love, then I’ll go.
The album closes very strongly (ahem) with Erin Passmore’s luscious vocal on “Saint.” The opening passage balances quick but subtle drums and quiet guitar to provide a background that Erin’s voice glides over like she’s floating on air. Her song is supported throughout by the best vocal harmonies on the album and instrumental interludes that vary between keyboard and soaring violin. I just love the way this band refuses to do what you expect them to do, varying the arrangement in the last verse with punctuated power chords instead of continuing in full band mode.
Rah Rah is simply one of the most exciting bands I’ve heard in years, and A Poet’s Dead is their strongest work to date. With all the talent in this group, I will be amazed if they don’t generate some interest on this side of the border, but such wishes are tempered by something I heard a friend of mine say years ago: “Never underestimate the stupidity of the American people.” While perhaps I’m “born to hope, raised to fail,” I simply refuse to believe that Rah Rah will not receive the attention they so obviously deserve.
Wake up, America!