San Francisco Bathhouse
October 16 | Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam

The New Pornographers deep down are a dirty rock ‘n’ roll band. Maybe not so deep down after all, their music is pure power pop (notwithstanding the mellower 2007 album Challengers). They’re full of overdriven glam guitars, blues riffs, and good old-fashioned pop. A band which supposedly started just for fun, they’ve always sounded like a bunch of talented musicians coming together and having a good time. And while they may be renowned for being a “supergroup”, a title which the band hate presumably for its connotations of transience and the idea of trading off past glories, their Wellington gig showed that they play some pretty mean music. They were tight, anthemic, and loud – and the joyous capacity crowd begged them back for two deserving encores.

Opening act, Martin Phillips is responsible for some of the greatest songs in our country’s history. But I won’t simply let it lie with that patronising honour: songs like ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’, ‘I Love My Leather Jacket’, ‘Pink Frost’ are some of the greatest songs, period. But he’s still so shamefully downplayed here that when he played the seminal ‘Pink Frost’ the crowd barely seemed to acknowledge it. It may have been because I was stuck in the dregs of the audience (it might have been different up front), or because his solo show lacked the force that a full Chills line-up might have provided, but I heard people say ‘who is this guy on stage?’, ‘hurry up and get off’ during the middle of riffs that should be tattooed into the ears of any self-respecting music fan. Later on, when AC Newman of the New Pornographers talked about how much of an honour it was to play with Phillips, I saw more people smirk with disbelief. These same people, by the way, also yelled the loudest when Newman did the usual touring routine of mentioning how cool New Zealand is.

New Pornographers are so hook heavy, it’s impossible not to be dragged in. And when you have songs such as ‘Use It’, ‘The Bleeding Heart Show’, ‘Twin Cinema’, ‘Mass Romantic’ and ‘Sing Me Spanish Techno’, it’s no wonder. The band may mess around with time signatures and tempo, have virtuouso drumming (in particular) and tease with false endings, but there’s something so simple about the way they play their songs. It could easily have been stadium rock in another age, or top the charts in another – the music has such a familiar, comfortable quality to it that the audience were dancing, clapping, and singing along as if they’d seen the band thousands of times before. In-between songs, Newman messed around with the crowd, teasing the audience about his knowledge of New Zealand music (he argued he could take anyone on in the audience with his knowledge of our stuff), or talking about the earthquake exhibit at Te Papa. The band closed their first encore with a turbo-charged version of ‘The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism’, the barnstorming number off their debut album Mass Romantic. They ended the show with the brilliant ‘Letter From an Occupant’, fittingly the first song they’d ever recorded. Fittingly because the song was the initial template for what the band do so well – joyous pop that sends an audience into raptures.