Pop classicism is alive and well (if a bit frenzied) thanks to the irrepressible efforts of the New Pornographers. The band's winsome chord changes and blissed-out hooks rained down at the Roxy on Tuesday. But this was no feel-good '60s revival. The Canadian supergroup's love of bubblegum is transformed by tricky time signatures, cerebral lyrics, and AP-level song structures, and the sold-out crowd got what they came for: an onslaught of some of the smartest indie-pop on the planet.
If the New Pornographers seemed to have taken their collective foot off the accelerator for "Challengers," the band's measured and occasionally anemic new album, they crammed back into the driver's seat for the live set. The front line was formidable: Neko Case, a rising alt-country star in her own right; A.C. Newman, the brainiac main songwriter and singer; and Dan Bejar, a.k.a. Destroyer. Bejar is to the Pornographers as Joe Walsh is to the Eagles: the band's secret rock 'n' roll weapon. Bejar's oddball, Bowie-esque gems - "Myriad Harbour" and "The Spirit of Giving" - made for deep moments during an evening of quirky power pop.
The band cherry-picked shiny baubles and tender ballads from all four of its albums, trading lead vocals - often within the space of a song - and cobbling configurations of dreamy, complex harmonies. Case is a force of nature; she loosed her windswept alto on the rough-and-tumble title track from "Mass Romantic" and "These Are the Fables," a moody charmer off of 2005's "Twin Cinema." Newman was miked like a backup singer, which he was half the time, but his leads were woefully buried in the sweet noise of "Use It," the perky, intricate fuzz fueling "All the Old Showstoppers," and under ambling waves of strummed guitar on "My Rights Versus Yours."
Happily, the sum of the New Pornographers' parts outshone individual glitches. Ooohs and ahhhs make more sense than witty wordplay when voices mesh into close, hard layers like the ones on "Challengers," the new album's regal title song, and "Adventures in Solitude," a breathtaking bit of melancholy. Keyboardist Kathryn Calder took a too-rare turn in the spotlight on that last tune, which split open halfway through, spilling out its muscle and bones. Amazingly, they seemed to float: fizzy and lovely and impossible to hold.
Joan Anderman can be reached at email@example.com.