Wednesday, September 26, 2007

New Pornographers / "Challengers"

The New Pornographers have been the definitive indie-pop group of the decade. They manage to pack more hooks into every song than most artists can fit on an album. It's simply amazing, though I'm sure it's easier when you have three of the best minds in Canadian indie music working for you: Dan Bejar (of Destroyer and Swan Lake), Carl Newman (aka A.C. Newman, formerly leader of the now-defunct Zumpano), and Neko Case (known best for her solo work). "Challengers" marks the group's fourth album, and the early word was that it was a more difficult affair than their previous albums. I couldn't disagree more.

"Challengers" is exactly what I expected it to be: another enjoyable, consistently strong album, with good lyrics and excellent execution. It opens with "My Right Versus Yours", which is also the album's lead single. It's admittedly more simplistic than some of their earlier works, but Newman's lead vocals drowned in Neko Case's backing vocals is still as thrilling as pop music gets, especially when the sounds swell as the song continues. They follow it with another great track, "All the Old Showstoppers". It is similar to "MRVY" in that Newman handles lead vocals and Case backs him while a pulsing beat rides underneath, but different in that it relies more on instrumentation rather than vocals to carry the song. The song "Challengers" may be the reason critics are lazily tossing around the word "difficult". It's much more low-key than usual, with the only instrument behind Case (who handles lead) and Newman's vocals being an acoustic guitar and bass, until more instruments begin to discreetly enter. The song is nothing outstanding, but Case's lead vocals sound incredible. "Myriad Harbour" is the first Bejar track on the album. Perhaps it's my bias toward Bejar, but for me this was easily the best track on the album. Sung-spoke vocals, guitar solos, a great acoustic lead guitar line, and splashes of three-part harmony; this is the perfect Dan Bejar Pornographers track.

The next two songs, "All the Things that Go to Make Heaven and Earth" and "Failsafe" are enjoyable listens, demonstrating different skills. "All the Things" is the most rapid-fire song on the album. Newman works frantically to get all his ideas and lyrics into the song as quickly as possible. "Failsafe" is another Neko Case song where she takes her sweet time and lets the song build up behind her vocals. What's interesting with this song (and many on this album) is how instead of ending the song with a loud and joyous bang, it ends with a relatively modest note. It bothers less on repeated listens, but you can't help but feel a little more crescendo would've made this album so much more.

The album's second half begins with a song that is a full two minutes longer than anything else in their catalogue, the six-and-a-half minute "Unguided". While a Pornographers song being this long seems like a recipe for disaster and overkill, it's actually an excellent song. It's carried by a loud, zealous chorus and enough energy to keep the listener attentive throughout. Another trick applied is the Case and Newman alternate on lead vocals from verse to verse so as to prevent the track from becoming redundant. The following song, "Entering White Cecilia", is a fine track on its own, but is a sequencing mistake being placed after "Unguided". To put a simple and straightforward Bejar track after an outstanding Case and Newman epic demeans it and it winds up coming across as as disappointment. Neither "Go Places" nor "Mutiny, I Promise You" are standouts, but they do well enough to advance the album to another more low-key effort, "Adventures in Solitude". It's begins as a simple and charming little song, before instantly transforming into a rich track complete with a strong orchestral backing. Case again nails the vocals (she sounds better on this album than any previous Pornographers disc), but the song surprisingly (and ineffectively) ends with a delicate acoustic chord rather than ending on the aural explosion that it would've been best suited for. Final track "The Spirit of Giving", another Bejar number, is lyrically the strongest track on the album, but the lyrics of "I was sick of America and her screaming decay" don't exactly match up with the arena-pleasing sing-a-long vibe of the production and Case's backing vocals. Another missed opportunity.

"Challengers" is, by all means, a fine album. Don't be thrown off by the tag of "difficult". Carl Newman isn't exactly Scott Walker. Ultimately, however, it's only a fine album when it could've been a classic. Throughout the album, they demonstrate how to build a pop masterpiece, but rarely seal the deal. This flaw is all the more frustrating because of their outstanding ability to close tracks memorably on their previous three albums. Compared to other pop albums, this is a very, very good album. Compared to the band's previous efforts though, this is nothing special. It approaches greatness, but never reaches it.

Rating: 8.1

1 comment:

Kid C said...

This review was 836 words, precisely four times longer than my Interpol review. Oops.