New Music: The New Pornographers – Challengers

22 08 2007

by mr. travis

new pornographers - challengers

Artist: The New Pornographers
Album: Challengers
Label: Matador
Release Date: August 21, 2007

Since their 2005 release, Twin Cinema, the so called indie rock “supergroup” the New Pornographers have found themselves at a crossroads. For starters, the title of “supergroup” or side project no longer applies; the band is as much a full time job for principle songwriter and de facto leader AC Newman as it is his other projects, having released four records under the New Pornographers moniker while touring countless times across North America. Not exactly the type of behavior one would expect from a band comprised of several other indie bands (though, most of them are more well known in Canada then in the United States). Two of those members, country-noir chanteuse Neko Case and Destroyer mastermind Dan Bejar both have received the best accolades of their respective careers with their previous albums (both of which came out during the downtime following Twin Cinema), making another recording session with the New Pornographers a bit less important (they already rarely tour with the band). Despite the pressures and success of specific members, the New Pornographers manage to make their latest release sounds like a true group effort, with specific songs beholden to the solo personalities of each singer. It’s also the groups most understated effort and it’s a welcome change from the boisterous (though, quite excellent) pop that has been heard in their previous albums.

Taking the slower numbers off (such as “The Bleeding Heart Show”) of Twin Cinema as a starting point, Challengers takes the sound of the New Pornographers and turns it inside out, creating an album of “folk-pop” that is much more cerebral than anything the band has done before, while still maintaining its bouncy sheen. Starting with the downtrodden opener “My Rights Versus Yours,” the band’s objectives become clear from the start: they are going to disassemble their sound, yet keep just a hint of it to keep it from being completely foreign, an ambition that may turn off some listeners because this record needs several spins to sink in. All of the previous Pornographers’ albums were like this, but with the pop sheen that surrounded their songs, they didn’t seem to take too long to penetrate the subconscious. But, here, the listener is thrown for a loop with the first song, usually they put their perkiest number at the beginning, here it’s a ditty about politics and personal rights, a far cry from the boisterous enthusiasm of “Mass Romantic off of their debut record of the same name. That doesn’t mean that their trademark sound is gone. After the initial shock of “My Rights,” the band comes back with “All the Old Showstoppers,” which is essentially what the name suggests, a showstopper that reminds the listener that they are indeed listening to the New Pornographers, albeit one that is a bit darker since last they appeared.

One of the interesting things about this record is how much the Neko Case and Dan Bejar numbers sound like they could have been leftovers from their own solo projects. The excellent “Challengers” would feel right at home on Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, while Bejar’s “Myriad Harbor” isn’t too far removed from his own Destroyer’s Rubies. Such individual stamps are welcomed to the band, bringing a bit of variety to the album., something that could be lacking on their previous records (especially Electric Version), where Newman’s pop sheen would tend to overwhelm at times.

There is a lot here to chew, which at first may give an underwhelming feel to the record. But, it’s the best record the band has put out yet, one that is confident not only in its abilities, but that continues to show new skills with each subsequent listen. There’s little doubt that this will be one of the best records of the year; hopefully the band can keep it together long enough that they will continue to grow and branch from this new and unexpected direction they have taken.

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