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Porn to Rock 

A Canadian supergroup breaks out of its super-mellow phase

Let's get this out of the way: Neko Case is part of the New Pornographers' spring tour, which kicked off a week ago and comes to town this weekend. So yes, the most famous and popular member of the Canadian group that rarely includes all eight members onstage at the same time will be in Cleveland.

Of course it matters to fans. But it doesn't matter so much to the band, which could just as easily swap another member to sing Case's parts. Still, it's always a good thing when the core Pornographers are on the road together. And during this run of the tour in support of last year's Together, all but Dan Bejar (who's touring with his other band, Destroyer) will perform.

Holding it all together is Carl Newman, the group's main songwriter who founded the New Pornographers more than a dozen years ago in Vancouver with a bunch of musicians who shared his love of chewy power pop and melodic indie rock. "Nobody here has to be the person in charge; they can just be a band member," he says. "If everybody had only one band and that one band is their only creative outlet, that's when frustration sets in."

It's tough keeping these Pornographers straight. Everyone has something else going on. Case, keyboardist Kathryn Calder, guitarist Todd Fancey, and Newman have all released solo albums. Bejar, bassist John Collins, and drummer Kurt Dahle play in other bands. And synth player Blaine Thurier is building an extensive filmography as a writer, director, and editor.

Newman's job is to bring all these different voices together and to figure out who's doing what and which songs they'll record. With so many songwriters and singers and personalities buzzing around, it's not easy to define the New Pornographers' sound.

"I listen to demos I made and I think, Is this a Pornographers song? I don't know," he says. "We definitely make [a certain] kind of pop song, but we've also gone into weirdness and really quiet ballads. I'm never quite sure what the New Pornographers are."

Their fifth album, Together, came out last May. It's the group's most aggressive-sounding record, a reaction of sorts to 2007's Challengers, their most laidback record and the first that wasn't universally adored. Newman's still not sure what happened with that album. "The other records got such a good reaction, I figured I'd continue doing whatever the hell I wanted," he says. "So I thought, I'm gonna get mellower. And that's when people said, 'Hey, you're too mellow.' That was the first time I realized that everybody doesn't love every single thing I do." Still, Newman says, "it's the record we needed to make."

Together is crunchier, ballsier, and way more forceful in the way it shoves its 1970s-style riffs at you. If Challengers is the calm before the storm, Together is the raging tempest uprooting you from your seat and whipping at your head 120 miles per freakin' hour.

Newman says he set out to write "pompous rock riffs and make them into orchestral pop songs." And if there's one thing distinguishing the New Pornographers from their indie-pop peers, it's these orchestral flourishes that surge through so many of the songs. Electric Light Orchestra comparisons often come up, but they go deeper than that.

Newman looks back on the Pornographers' catalog — Mass Romantic (2000), Electric Version (2003), Twin Cinema (2005), and the two recent albums — with few regrets. He thinks Mass Romantic sounds "too tinny." Electric Version is "too upbeat." And he believes Twin Cinema "is when the floodgates opened." But Newman is always thinking about the band's next move.

He's currently sifting through a bunch of songs he wrote to figure out which ones will go on the next Pornographers album and which will likely end up on his third solo record. More than anything, it's about finding the perfect sound, the one that nails the very essence of the band — even if he's not sure what that is. "When I think about a New Pornographers record and what we're going to do next, I think, Should I try to be sounding like the New Pornographers?" he says. "Or should I take the New Pornographers on a completely new journey? It's a tough one."

More by Michael Gallucci

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