Did you ever watch The Kids in the Hall? Remember the intro where The Kids hang out in a club with a collection of cute girls and circus-freak-type extras while a band plays a repetitive riff heavy on the wah-wah bar?[i] Well, I loved that show when I was a kid, and that intro is what I thought my social life and listening to music were going to be like as an adult.
Adulthood kind of started out as a big, dumb disappointment. Where were the smart, funny Canadians of ambiguous gender? Where was the goofy, happy rock music? Where was the weird-on-purpose, experimental art/entertainment?
And then I found out about The New Pornographers. You probably know their story: the ironic “supergroup” composed of underground late-90s indie rockers wins fame, then its members become even more successful as solo acts, then they are an actual supergroup, but they all at least pretend to be really uncomfortable with their success. To be honest, I’m usually turned off by how Dan Bejar and Neko Case present themselves in interviews. It’s hard for me to take someone who is intensely self-aware and affected who is consistently trying to convince me, and maybe themselves, that they’re not. Carl Newman comes across a lot more palatable: he’s always judging himself, judging the music, referencing something, thinking everything over again and again, and he tells you that straight up.
That’s why it’s peculiar that I tend to like the songs Newman writes for Case, and the songs Bejar writes, the most. My favorite is the Bejar-penned “Myriad Harbour,” off the band’s 2007 album Challengers (Newman says it’s his favorite too;[ii] how can you not love the humble bastard?). It has everything I like about The New Pornographers – the silly fun, the catchy hook, the lyrics at once comic and astute. This is definitely the type of song that was played in my fantasy life at the The Kids in the Hall bar.
So yup, the video is awesome (The New Pornographers’ videos tend to be awesome, as befits a band that really cares a lot about their presentation (just admit it, Bejar!)). [iii]
“Myriad Harbour” hooked me with its simple, upbeat opening, Newman’s cheerful guitar strumming punctuated by a series of tuba-low, gag-reel-esque notes. Then Bejar’s hammed up falsetto calls in, “I took a train, I took a plane,” and the rest of the band responds “Aggcchh…who cares you always end up in the city.” For whatever reason, I just started cracking up the first time I heard it, sitting alone on a bus. The song just brought me so much kindergarten-sing-along style joy, I couldn’t help it.
But this thing is really a playpen for disaffected adults. Bejar’s call and response with his bandmates reflects the desperately intentional innocence that was the other, less mentioned aspect of The Culture of the Hip in the twenty-aughts:[iv] “I said to Carl, look up for once/See just how the sun sets in the sky/I said to John, do you think the girls here/Ever wonder how they got so pretty?/Oh well I do!” Just a bunch of “boys…with interesting sounds,” about to land in New York, admiring the views. “All the girls falling to ruin/Breakin’ daddy’s heart/Just to hang around,” is a little joke about Case, whose role in the band is amusingly limited to patting a tambourine.
The group has some more tongue-in-cheek fun walking around Manhattan, as Bejar pretends to be blissfully unaware of some of the city’s more pretentious trends:
I walked into the local record store and asked for
An American music anthology
(It sounds fun!)
(They tore off my skirt and stuck it on the walls of PS1)
The members of The New Pornographers write music in the way a chess master plays an opponent – every move resonates with a mental storehouse of previous games, nothing is new or original. Here he is mocking his own encyclopedic knowledge base by pretending to be a Canadian tourist landing in a foreign land asking to be introduced to the music through a compilation. As oblivious as a girl who knows nothing about art wandering into MoMA’s secondary art gallery PS1, getting her bottom stripped off and called “art.”
Stranded at Bleecker and Broadway
Looking for something to do
Someone somewhere asked me,
“Is there anything in particular I can help you with?”
(All I ever wanted help with was you).
It’s hard to imagine anyone feeling “stranded” at a subway station in the heart of all civilization, but we’re used to the sarcastic tone by this point. The final couplet is one of the best lines I have ever heard in a song, so surprisingly, suddenly honest, so universal. In a society where we are so frequently alone in crowds, where selfishness and the profit-motive are held above all other virtues, the time we are most often offered help or charity by another human being is by salespeople who don’t really want to “help” at all. “All I ever wanted help with was you” evokes an inner sorrow that we keep hidden, it hints at the crushing, overwhelming type of emotions cultural constructs like consumerism and sarcasm are supposed to assist us in avoiding.
“Myriad Harbor” is just a silly, fun song for anyone self-indulgent, who feels alienated by society at large. I can’t get enough of it. I’m going to go listen to it right now and smile.
The New Pornographers have a new album out, Brill Bruisers. They’re also on tour, and I’ll be at The Bearsville Theater in Woodstock tonight to catch their show. Check in at Old School Record Review next week for some videos and pictures from the concert, as well as me prattling on with some unsolicited opinions about their music.
[i] Here it is. The one I’m talking about starts at 2:32. I wonder what the ambiguously ethnic beauty at 2:40, with her black panty hose, is up to these days? At 3:20, there’s a guy sitting in the bar, wearing a flannel and reading a book. I’m convinced that I was powerfully subconsciously influenced by that dude. I was sitting around reading books in social situations where other people were dancing and drinking well into my twenties, wondering why I was having a hard time meeting women. The band that plays the theme song is actually a pretty credible instrumental jam band from Canada called Shadowy Men for a Shadowy Planet.
[iv] Other than irony, obviously. Sure acting like you didn’t give a fuck about anything and being self-deprecating was cool, but those same people would go to flea markets and buy a collection of used smurf figurines and spend thirty hours giggling constantly while they made a stop-motion video with the toys. Faux-innocence is the other side of the coin. Sometimes it gets too hard to pretend you don’t have your own genuine heartbreaks and addictions, that you don’t care. You have to revert to a childlike state to get a reprieve.