Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The New Pornographers -- Challengers (2007)

This is an example of an review where I slowly (very slowly) warmed up to the album the more I listened to it. I think this is pretty common with artists I really love -- it takes more for them to impress me the fourth, fifth or twentieth time around. (This may also explain my problems in long term relationships, but I digress)

The New Pornographers -- Challengers (Matador) matadorrecords.com

The fourth New Pornos album is a challenge -- how can A.C. Newman grow as a composer while maintaining the happy pop quotient that has made this band so beloved? And is it even tougher to do so when he had to incorporate the other talents in the band. This night not seem to be such a chore, but it might divide his attention.

Is it blasphemy to say that Newman doesn’t need Neko Case? I don't want to knock Neko, but the slower material on this record sounds a bit overstuffed at times, unlike the sparer and more direct backing found on Newman’s solo platter from a few years ago. I wonder if some of the songs here would be better served by that approach. I also wonder if Newman’s opaque lyrics are yielding diminishing returns, as the emotional pull of the music is scuttled somewhat when it’s hard to figure what the hell he’s singing about.

With all of these gripes, I have really come to like this record a lot, to the point that I’ll ultimately rescind my complaint that things sound overstuffed.

And I should shut up about Neko. Her reading of the stately title cut is a reminder that she’s not merely a powerhouse singer, but she brings so much nuance and feeling to what she does.

Sometimes the emotoins are conveyed by Newman's gentle vocals and the building of the New Pornographers’ equivalent of a wall of sound, as shown on the epic “Unguided”. This is master craftsmanship, with the slow verses melting into the more urgent bridges, leading to the release in the chorus. Beautiful.

While the maturity of the band is apparent from the deft use of orchestration on songs like “All the Old Showstoppers”, they still find the time for the fizzy, breezy pop tunes upon which they built their reputation. “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth” gallops at a fast pace, led by frenzied multiple piano parts. “Mutiny, I Promise You” is less frenetic, but no less peppy.

Meanwhile, Dan Bejar’s tunes are, as per usual, initially unimpressive, but more enjoyable after a few spins. Bejar follows Newman’s lead in building from the spartan to a full bore chorus on the swell “Myriad Harbour”, whilst “The Spirit of Giving” is a great closing track, particularly the lovely string-and-horn instrumental break that leads to a handclapping gospel finale.

I’ve certainly overcome any initial disappointment.

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