A.C. Newman of New Pornographers and Torquil Campbell of Stars are both leaders of (mostly) Canadian indie pop groups. Both are known for fusing retro sounds with a modern sensibility, creating lushly orchestrated songs with a refreshingly straightforward appeal. And both have seen the impact of their creative vision upstaged by the same thing: the raw sex appeal of their female vocalists. Because for all the complicated songcraft, it’s those voices — one a soaring siren call, the other a whispered come-on — that move both groups’ arrangements somewhere far beyond the world of ordinary pop songs. Faced with the absence of the former — a particularly alluring redhead named Neko Case — as well as the challenges inherent to an outdoor summer concert, the New Pornographers/Stars pairing in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park had the potential for disaster. Luckily for the 8,000 fans in attendance, the June 25 Canada Day tribute was anything but.
Mid-way through Stars’ opening set, Campbell noted with some relish from the stage that Prospect Park was the largest venue Stars had ever played. As the son of one of Canada’s most respected Shakespearean theater actors, and an actor of the “struggling” variety himself, Campbell said he loves to play things big. And while Stars’ 2003 album Heart won over fans with its dreamy bedroom love songs, Stars’ latest album, Set Yourself on Fire, revealed the group’s arena-sized ambitions.
On the album, grand trumpet and string-laden arrangements work far more successfully than the quasi-protest posturing hinted at by the album cover’s clenched fist, and the same was true for the band’s live show. While older songs like “Look Up” and “Elevator Love Song” lost some their poignancy live, newer, bigger songs like “Reunion” and “One More Night” translated as even more potent.
Overall, the bigness worked, except when Campbell’s on-stage antics crossed the line from charisma (jumping up and down) to childish ploys for attention (humping the mic stand). His hyper-emotive delivery was usually an unnecessary flourish, coming off like a desperate attempt to compete with Amy Millan’s effortlessly evocative vocals. With any luck, he took a few tips from Newman after the show about how to deal with his frustration constructively. After all, Black Francis never got over the incongruity of “Gigantic” being the Pixies’ most adored song, but all that bad blood amounted to was “Cannonball,” an ever bigger hit for Kim Deal with another band.
A.C. Newman has taken a different approach in his handling of Neko Case and the input-to-influence ratio of her contributions to the New Pornographers collective. The results, like most things Canadian, are usually more pleasant and more boring than something more confrontational might produce. The Celebrate Brooklyn show was no exception: With Case occupied in the studio recording her own album, the Pornographers embarked on a mini-tour without her. Picking up the slack was Newman’s niece, Kathryn Calder, who took over piano and tambourine in addition to Case’s vocals.
The 23-year-old Calder must have known she had big scales to fill, and she did so admirably. From her first big solo on “Mass Romantic,” her voice was clear and sweet, if not magnetic, and it gained in strength throughout the show. By the time the group played their closing hit, “Letter from an Occupant,” she sounded positively Neko-like. An in fact, the end result was a better performance than Pornographers shows with Neko, which are usually plagued by a collective audience restlessness during the songs on which she doesn’t sing lead vocals. A Neko-free Porno pushes the focus back to the songs, which are solid enough to hold up to the scrutiny.
In smaller theaters where the New Pornographers have played in the past, audience members have often seemed unsure about how to express their appreciation. (Polite nodding? Foot-tapping?) But the energy of the masses at the outdoor venue made it clear: this was music for dancing. Interspersing new songs like “The Bleeding Heart Show” with crowd-pleasers like “Electric Version” and “The Laws Have Changed” kept the momentum up, and many of those lucky enough to score seats abandoned them to form an exuberant, writhing mass up front. A few were even inspired to jump on stage, dancing wildly for all of two beats before being escorted off. And if, in the end, the band was still not all that exciting to look at, that was just fine for the people sprawled out on the grass with only a partial view of the stage anyway.
New Pornographers kick off a larger tour in September supporting their new album, Twin Cinema, out August 23. Both Neko Case and Kathryn Calder will be on stage for the tour, with Calder handling all the keyboards, as she does on the album. Calder’s band, the Immaculate Machine, will be opening, as well as Destroyer, the band led by the Pornographers’ co-songwriter Dan Bejar, who will join the group on stage for the first time.
Stars play a sold-out SummerStage show in New York’s Central Park with Death Cab for Cutie and the Decemberists on August 18.