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Monday, August 20, 2007

The New Pornographers: "Challengers"

It's probably best to get it out of the way, so here it goes: the New Pornographers will probably never be able to create an album as good or better than "Twin Cinema." When "Twin Cinema" released around two years ago, I had never heard of this "supergroup" or any of the members to whom the label is attributed. But when I picked up the album on the insistence of several reviews and a preview listen, I knew that this was a band that was perfect for me. The power pop music that on that album was near-flawless and it remains just as exciting and powerful today as it was in 2005. So no, "Challengers" is not better or as good as "Twin Cinema." But once you get over that fact, you'll find an album that is great in its own right and definitely worth owning.

It starts off with the first single, "My Rights Versus Yours." I have to be honest, when I first listened to the song a few months ago I was not a fan. The song lacked the powerful hooks and grandiose climaxes that "Twin Cinema" flaunted on pretty much every song. Of course, since then I've been able to appreciate the song for it's absolutely beautiful lyrics, and relentless drive. Carl Newman's delivery is flawless as he sings "We hang suspended from the heights until it's safer to walk here." The hook is a bit weak in my opinion("The truth in one free afternoon"), but it really doesn't distract from this great song. "All the Old Showstoppers" continues the fantastic songwriting from the first track. It really feels like a group effort, especially by the time the bridge rolls around.

It runs head-on into the title track, "Challengers." It's not only one of my favorite tracks on the album, but probably one of my favorites of 2007. Neko Case takes over the vocals here, and she once again nails it. Each line, each note is sung perfectly with Carl harmonizing gently in the background. Everything about the song is beautiful, from Neko's declaration that "We are the challengers of the unknown!" to simple "Nah nah nahs" on the bridge. The song succeeds in being moving and poignant without the help of a chorus or any sort of climax. In my opinion, the song is just like one big climax, it starts off strong and never falters. Without a doubt, it is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever had the pleasure of listening to.

Dan Bejar's next up with his almost humorous, "Myriad Harbor." As he nonchalantly notes, "I took a plane, I took a train..." the rest of the band cuts him off with "Ah! Who cares? You always end up in the city!" By the time they're all singing "Look out upon the Myriad Harbor," chances are you're singing along right with them. The steady drumming and infectious guitars are complimented by some string instruments here, and it sounds awesome. Speaking of things sounding awesome, "All of the Things that Go to Make Heaven and Earth" is one of the few times on the album that The New Pornographers revert back to their wilder days. This up tempo power pop opus is quite an accomplishment, even for this band! The song sounds like it could've fit perfectly on Carl Newman's solo album, "The Slow Wonder," but the background vocals clearly make it a good fit here too.

The energy built up by that song is almost immediately brought to a halt by "Failsafe" in which Kathryn Calder finally makes her debut on a Pornographers record. Unfortunately, the song is pretty unmemorable. Her vocals aren't really the problem, as they're near-Neko quality and impressive. But the melody and the music surrounding it are misguided at best. I can't help but think that the song made the final cut simply because of Calder's notable presence. "Unguided" is also a song that seems out of place. At 6 1/2 minutes, it progresses slowly and really never pays off the way one would expect it to. There is definitely something at work here, especially when Neko Case finds her way into the song, but it still seems like it's missing something. In the end, it's lyrics are its only saving grace and it's worth listening to if only for that.

"Entering White Cecilia" is another song that is fronted by Bejar, but it sounds more like his main project, Destroyer, than The New Pornographers. Anyone who is familiar with Bejar's solo work knows that he loves to half-talk and rush a lot of his lines. In the context of Destroyer, it works well, but here it just sound like he's taking his fellow bandmates on a ride that they weren't totally down for. This is evidenced by the background vocalists awkwardly struggling to keep up with his erratic delivery. Even though the album takes a dip in quality for those three songs, the remainder of "Challengers" is great!

"Go Places" is a Case-fronted song in which she asserts "Yes, a heart will always stay one day too long, always hoping for the hot flashes to come." Again, she does a perfect job of delivering the vocals. The song climaxes at around the 2:30 mark, as Neko sings the chorus with passion and conviction. She continues to amaze me. "Mutiny, I Promise You" is an upbeat group effort whose woodwinds give it a very cool late-60s pop sound, at least for the song's introduction. In the chorus, the members ask "What's the weight of the world worth to ya'?" in traditional Pornographers form. It's a very cool song.

"Adventures In Solitude" is another Newman-fronted balled, whose beauty and poignancy rivals "Challengers." Newman's subdued singing of "We thought we lost you...welcome back," is countered beautifully in the bridge as the song picks up and Neko takes over the vocal duties. Violins are added here, and they once again integrate perfectly with the band. The album ends with "The Spirit of Giving," in which Bejar makes his third appearance on the album, singing "I'll give you something to be sad about. It's your turn to go down now!" The song features everything from a trumpet to an accordion, and it ends the album in an almost triumphant way. It leaves you feeling good about what you just listened to, and gives you a reason to listen to it all over again.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about "Challengers" is that many of the songs sound like they are not group efforts. In many cases it sounds like Neko wrote a few Neko Case Songs, Carl wrote a few A.C. Newman songs, and Dan wrote a few Destroyer songs and then everybody added background vocals, a little bit of drums, some guitars, and then called it a day. "Challengers" is nowhere near as cohesive, focused, or exciting as it's predecessors. At the same time, however, it is more creative and risky than any of the group's other three albums. Like I said, once you get over the fact that it's no "Twin Cinema," "Challengers" reveals itself for what it truly is; another great album from The New Pornographers and one of 2007's best!

Key Tracks:
1. "My Rights Versus Yours"
2. "Challengers"
3. "Myriad Harbor"
4. "All of the Things that Go to Make Heaven and Earth"
5. "Adventures in Solitude"

7 out of 10 Stars


Anonymous said...

Read the liner notes. Neko doesn't write any of the songs. It's all Newman, plus three from Bejar.

Cale said...

"In many cases it sounds like Neko wrote a few Neko Case Songs..."

A far cry from "Neko wrote a few songs"

Tawriffic said...

Just wanted to say that this album is just getting better with every listen. The maturity in this album compared to previous offerings from TNP is measurable. The live concert from SOHO on itunes is a worthy supplement to the album.