Violins sound strikingly like Neko Case’s voice. Or is it the other way around?
Along these lines, the sonic layering mastery on iTunes Live from Montreal is no surprise to any A.C. Newman fan, and I really hope you are one! I remember getting a “You’re just aces” (cheeky) from the old-as-sin record store clerk out in Colorado I bought The Slow Wonder from, and then marveling at the zen charisma of “Elemental” (“Fought my way through to the West side for you / Not because I wanted to”) from his followup Get Guilty. And of course, now, Shut down the Streets seems titularly erroneous to a hilarious extent, but truly, that wasn’t really a failure.
Really, though, you could draw comparisons between why that last album fell short of cosmic unforgettability and the similar problem to this one — basically a sort of performative torpor. Plus, he keeps putting all these depressing songs about being rejected from novel publishers on all his set lists. But getting back to my earlier point, A.C. Newman seems very much the left brain musician — I mean, he’s quality, his melodies can FEED your right brain, and “lack of stage presence” is sort of an ugly term I reserve for bands that are really much worse live than on album, as happen to be the Meat Puppets. But, simply, we’re not getting a NEW A.C. Newman, on stage, who’s performing these songs. We’re getting a shell.
So we look for positives, which we figured there would be, especially if like me you’ve seen his band The New Pornographers in the flesh. “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve” trumps the studio version by showcasing the gentle acoustic guitar sound in a way that really gives it space — I know this is a weird comparison, but it’s like on the studio version of Nine Inch Nails’ “The Becoming” when the acoustic guitar comes in, or a Jimmy Page pattern circa Led Zeppelin III — sometimes the hollow body Les Paul, or whatever it happens to be, just sounds best with company.
The beautiful tension on “The Heartbreak Rides,” another song sonically behooved by the live setting, summons thoughts of “Stacked Crooked” the closeur on the New Pornographers’ classic album Twin Cinema, and immediately commands queries of why no Pornos tracks crash the party here. But then, somewhat like Newman’s solo stuff, the Pornos did veer at times unwittingly into the realm of “cheesy.” But they just did cheesy so WELL. It was like, they’d just written the perfect melody, there was no reason to render any of the lyrics as anything we’d ever heard. There’s no, “She’s such a bit**” like you’re likely to hear from lo-fi frat boy Nick Cave, there’s really no degrading of anyone whomsoever (which of course largely disqualifies it from water cooler banter status the continent over)… it was all ideal from the start with them (“10,000 dancing girls kicking cans ‘cross the sky / No reason why”)… in fact the hallucinatory melody fed the hallucinatory lyric set perfectly, which is why I’ve unscrupulously been able to spin Twin Cinema over 100 times in the last 10 years, since its release. Anyway, I could see insufferable claps and lighter-waving inundating the proceedings during say an acoustic version of “The Bleeding Heart Show,” et. al., so perhaps it makes sense that he shies away from it.
I’m just gonna be straight up: “The Changeling (Get Guilty)” buys this albums’ score a solid point and a half. To the listener new to Newman’s crafty pop weaving, sure, it sounds delicate, emaciated and wistful, but his fans are those that have extracted from his projects a certain perfection, and as far as the live sound here goes, the oeuvre meets the ornaments — the style meets the subtleties, in rock and roll exaltation, all band members on board and perfectly content in their complimentary roles. Plus, as anyone who’s mired through endless listens to Newman’s tenderings of specificity knows, he’s much better at the general (or the deviations into dark humor, see “There are too many prophets here / Strike ground zero / One by one by one by one”), and “Get Guilty,” though it obviously is a chafing and misanthropic message, finds itself joyous within the campfire singalong setting it dons here. Hey, at least we can all agree on SOMETHING.
Plus, we’re used to it now. Anyway, this is classic post-punk: apocalyptic lyrics over saccharine setting, just like The Cure’s “Yesterday I got so old / I felt like I could die” or the Pixies’ “You think I’m dead but I sailed away / On a wave of mutilation.” You might say, Newman never got his great “wave of mutilation” from the heavens, there were too many of those annoying prophets to ward it off.