The karaoke gods are not smiling on Carl Newman.
For the past half hour, the New Pornographers frontman has been crooning away here at Tinga Tinga, a sing-along joint in Manhattan's Koreatown, where each performance is judged on a scale from one to 100. Unfortunately, such evaluations are assigned by a rather snooty -- and seemingly arbitrary -- computer system, and Newman's skills are very publicly being taken to task.
"I got a 70?" he exclaims after knocking out "Born to Be Alive," Patrick Hernandez's frantic Carter-era disco hit. "Those pricks!"
Newman, 39, consoles himself by repeatedly pressing a canned-applause button, and then passes around the complicated remote control. The filled-to-capacity room is covered with sparkly gold wallpaper and illuminated by harsh fluorescent lights.
Newman's cheering section includes his bandmates, each of whom brings a unique semi-superpower to the proceedings:
Kathryn Calder, 25 (keyboards, vocals): Sings absolutely anything like a natural pro -- even Ace of Base!
Todd Fancey, 40 (guitars): Does a killer Neil Diamond impression that goes from "warm" to "touching warm" in just seconds!
John Collins, 38 (bass): Has the ability to disappear after just ten minutes!
Blaine Thurier, 40 (synthesizer): Can identify obscure Canadian landmarks whenever they appear in a video!
Kurt Dahle, 40 (drums): Busts out ad-libbed, teasing lyrics about his bandmates on the spot!
Neko Case, 37 (vocals): Can and will sit silently in the back of the room, apparently having no fun whatsoever!
Of course, it will take some time for these skills to reveal themselves; it's hard to jump right in and start singing on a dry stomach. But once the liquor and sushi levels begin to deplete, the sound of everything from '70s soft rock to '90s pop to contemporary country will fill the room. That the band members have a fondness for melodic, three-minute-and-under radio staples should be no surprise. Over the course of four albums -- including the brand-new, lovely Challengers -- the New Pornographers have established themselves as a crackerjack indie-pop act, their songs flush with hooks.
And because they all know their stuff, karaoke with the band is not for novices -- they delight in stumping each other with obscurities. When Calder selects Queen's 1978 ballad "Don't Stop Me Now," her bandmates can only stare with a mix of incredulity and awe. "We're all sort of rock scientists," says Dahle, who explains that their karaoke strategy isn't to show off their vocal talents -- after all, that's what they get paid to do onstage-but to revel in music-geek gamesmanship. "And it doesn't matter who's up," he adds, "because everybody sings." (Well, almost everybody.)
Indeed, these crowded sing-alongs have become a New York City tradition for the Pornos: Whenever they're all in town, somebody from their label, Matador, usually ends up piling them into a room; four years ago, they even found themselves in a karaoke showdown with Chan Marshall. "I had never really paid much attention to Cat Power at that point," recalls Newman, "and she did this Nina Simone song. It was like, 'Holy shit, is she an amazing singer!' It was the only time I'd ever heard anyone sing karaoke that was stirring and beautiful." Whether anyone can match that criteria tonight remains to be heard. As their bandmates flip through the song list, Newman and Calder attempt the Black Eyed Peas' "Where Is the Love?" The accompanying video that feeds lyrics features footage seemingly shot at a Caribbean resort. (Nothing undermines lyrics like "People killing, people dying / Children hurtin', you hear them crying" more than a couple of parrots riding colorful bicycles.) Meanwhile, Case has slinked out of the room, unlikely to return.
"Sing with me, y'all!" Newman implores, before belting out a few verses with very little flow. If will.i.am were actually capable of feeling shame, this would surely induce it. And yet Newman earns his highest score yet: a 98. He has not won over the machine completely, but he's getting close.
"I guess my rhymes weren't that tight," he says wanly, as someone hits the applause button.
When Newman was growing up in Vancouver, he and his friends frequented the now-defunct drag-queen karaoke bar Avenue Lounge, where their squareness was a liability. "We had to earn our way when we first started showing up," he says. "They didn't like us very much. They knew we were just a bunch of normal straight guys. When we were finally regulars, and Wanda the drag-queen hostess was signaling to us as we walked in, I was very proud."
Back then, if Newman really wanted to slay 'em, he'd cue up Phil Collins' "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)." But it's hard to imagine him ever sticking to just one song. As the band's primary songwriter, he's the indie-rock equivalent of Judd Apatow or J.J. Abrams: a pop-culture egghead who's assimilated his influences -- from Jimmy Webb to Rick Nielsen -- but never stooped to simply replicating them. Just don't use the N-word to describe him or his bandmates.
"It really pisses me off when people call us a nerdy band," Newman says. (He's either joking or living in denial, as this proclamation comes shortly after a mini-dissertation on the similarities between Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" and the 5th Dimension's "Requiem: 820 Latham.") "Death Cab for Cutie, although they're friends of mine and I love them -- they're a nerdy band. Or the Decemberists. They're a nerdy band. Us? I wouldn't fuck with Todd Fancey. He'd tear you a new one. Or Neko. It would be unwise to screw with her." This much seems evident.
The New Pornographers have long been a far-flung operation, all of them usually spread across Canada, except lone Yank Case, who's found solo success with such albums as last year's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Her involvement with the band has always been sporadic, leading to some frustrating moments.
"It was hard in 2003 or whenever. Somebody would say, 'They're offering us $10,000 to play a show,'" says Newman. "And then Neko couldn't do it. It'd be maddening. You'd be like, 'Yeah, I coulda used that $1,000.' But it's not her job to take care of all of us." It helped that, in 2004, the band recruited Newman's niece Calder, of indie poppers Immaculate Machine, to sing Case's parts onstage. "When Kathryn joined the band, it was the opposite of what you'd expect," Newman says. "There was no female jealousy, no 'Who's that other chick in the band?' I think it made Neko happier overall."
Making Challengers required more schedule-scrambling than usual: In 2006, shortly after the release of Twin Cinema -- which sold 114,000 copies and made the band a yup-rock favorite -- Newman relocated to Brooklyn, and the rest of the Pornos spent time there recording. Newman made the move to be with Christy Simpson, a marketing manager at Matador; they married in August. Fittingly, Challengers is the band's most overtly amorous record yet -- sometimes cautious about love (the slow-building "Go Places"), sometimes downright giddy (the spasmodic "All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth").
The empty plastic cups are piling up, a joint is being passed around, and the room's couches are getting increasingly comfy. The only problem is, the New Pornographers have begun to exhaust the song list, a haphazard assortment that features a half-dozen tracks by '80s power-metallers Helloween but only one from Meat Loaf. The slim pickings are especially frustrating for Thurier, who lived in Japan for two years and is eager to show off his language skills. "There's a song called 'Sukiyaki' that I always do," he says. "I kill with it."
Alas, after conferring with an attendant, he learns that the only Asian pop songs on tap are from Korea. "They're taunting me with scenes of Japan," Thurier says, as non sequitur shots of ancient Eastern temples appear onscreen.
After a chilled-out group rendition of Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are" closes things down, the remaining members decide to seek out another venue; not only does Thurier want to find his beloved Japanese hit, but there's enough booze left to keep the party going for at least a few more hours.
Outside, we commandeer a pair of cabs and head downtown to a karaoke spot on St. Mark's Place, the former punk-rock outpost that now resembles a block-long Hot Topic. But because it's the night before Independence Day, the bar is a complete shitshow, with a drunken banker type growling a profane version of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." It only gets worse from there: Two sauced guys decide the place is too crowded for the both of them and start taking hallway-clearing swings at one another. (Nothing gets the kids riled up these days like a good pacifist Bob Dylan song.)
The band members don't flinch at any of this -- possibly because they're Canadian, or possibly because most of them are a bit glazed themselves -- but it's clear that the pot-and-alcohol-fueled momentum is fading. A last-ditch $20 bribe is offered to secure a private room; when that fails, everyone piles out onto the street. Thurier looks especially pained.
"The universe," he says, with more than a hint of sadness, "is cock-blocking my song."