fb-pixel Skip to main content

New Pornographers rediscover a signature sound

The New PornographersEbru Yildiz (custom credit)

Indie rock band the New Pornographers have been around a while. So long, in fact, that their own frontman, Carl Newman, described their new album — the band’s eighth — as having a “classic Pornographers sound” in its promo materials. It’s been 19 years since the band released “Mass Romantic,” an intended one-off by a “supergroup” whose members were better known for other bands. Instead of just going back to those other bands — which they also did — its members stuck around, releasing several highly acclaimed albums in the early aughts.

Their new album, “In the Morse Code of Brake Lights,” does indeed sound like some of the band’s earlier works, especially “Mass Romantic” and its two successors, “Electric Version” (2003) and “Twin Cinema” (2005). The band has always specialized in seemingly simple but unpredictable pop-rock songs, and these early albums had more discernible instrumentation — bass, drums, electric guitars, handclaps. The band gradually veered towards sounds that were both heavier and more baroque while maintaining Newman’s ingenious earworm melodies.


Newman, the New Pornographers’ lead singer and main songwriter, says it wasn’t his intention to get back to basics.

“It was nothing I really thought about too much,” he says, ahead of the band’s show Monday at Royale. “The song ‘The Surprise Knock’ had a different arrangement, and one day I was in the studio and I thought: What if we play this in the style of ‘Electric Version’ or ‘Twin Cinema’? It was cool. It made me realize that around the time of [those albums], there was a particular kind of song we were popular for doing, and I thought, I don’t want to keep doing this.”

He adds, with a laugh, “Looking back, it maybe wasn’t the smartest career move.”

Newman decided the band had spent enough time in the intervening years experimenting with other sounds so that "when I was making this record . . . no one [was] going to accuse me of repeating myself.”


While “In the Morse Code of Brake Lights” does have the punchiness of earlier work, it also has songs — like the elegantly lush “Dreamlike and on the Rush” and the surprisingly intimate “You Won’t Need Those Where You’re Going” — that sound confident and vulnerable.

The latter song, which features only Newman’s voice, some piano chords, and some stray synths, ranks among the band’s best work. Newman initially wasn’t so sure.

“I don’t really like having my voice completely exposed,” he says. “I don’t like where you can hear every nuance in my voice. It makes me nervous. It’s like staring at myself in the mirror. I’m still kind of nervous about that song.”

Kathryn Calder, the band’s longtime keyboardist (and Newman’s niece), says moments like these were especially rewarding.

“I think the main difference between this record and other records, as far as keyboards go, is that this time I could definitely hear what parts I played,” she says. “On previous albums, the whole experience could be a blur of improvisation and the parts could be filtered or changed through computer magic, so it sometimes — not always — made it hard to know what I actually played months later when listening to the whole album together."

Newman has always worn his influences on his sleeve, from ELO and Wings to Fleetwood Mac. When Ric Ocasek died in September, he tweeted a tribute to the Cars’ frontman. (“I will never stop imitating the first Cars album,” he wrote. “His influence will always stay with me.”)


When asked what it was about the band he wanted to imitate, Newman is ready with an answer.

“That sort of offbeat groove,” he says. “The first thing on the first record, ‘Good Times Roll.’ ” He then imitates the song’s off-kilter, syncopated guitar riff. “Also, the idea of using very simple keyboard lines. Those things combined together were a big influence on ‘Mass Romantic.’ We weren’t trying that hard to do that, but we found that we were moving towards that. The Cars, Blondie, the Vapors. I think we just heard ourselves and thought, ‘Oh, OK, that’s what we’re doing.’ ”

For all these influences — and once you’re aware of them, it becomes fun to pick them out — Newman continues to write some of the most unpredictable, melodically satisfying music in rock. After all these years, the New Pornographers still sound like themselves.

“I’ve realized no matter how hard I try, I write a certain kind of song,” he says. “I never worry about moving too far away from it. I don’t think I can move too far away from it. I do what I do.”


With Lady Lamb. At Royale Nov. 4 at 8 p.m. Tickets $35, www.bowerypresents.com

David Brusie can be reached at dbrusie@gmail.com.