Monday, August 20, 2007

Album Review: New Pornographers - Challengers

Official Score: 87%

What the Others Say

Pitchfork: 6.0
Tiny Mix Tapes: 3.5/5
Coke Machine Glow: N/A

Early in my parents' marriage my stepfather bought my mother a shirt that featured a giant heart with the words "Leftover Lover" scrawled in sleazy script. She had been livid about the purchase, though perhaps still reeling from the last divorce, let the aberration slide.

On the New Pornographers' latest, you could call frontman AC Newman somewhat of a leftover lover. In an interview earlier this year, Newman said that after letting Dan Bejar and Neko Case take their pick of his newly written songs, he cheerfully resigned himself to the scrappings. Does this shameless placating signal that the New Pornos may be on shaky ground? I hope not, as Challengers is yet another confident and sophisticated addition to the New Pornos' impressive catalogue.

No, I'm not one of those AC-Newman-crazed fan girls that I keep hearing about. That signature lisp just doesn't do it for me, sexually anyhow. I am a big fan of his power-pop, or "power-folk" as he proclaimed in a recent PF interview. AC Newman is the brains behind the band, and the man shouldn't have to beg for his own scraps from anyone, not even Neko Case. Neko snags the titular track here, a slow-burner as restrained as the affair she croons about. Admittedly Neko's tracks on this album, though good, don't stand up to "The Jessica Numbers" or "These Are the Fables." I know Neko's a country chantreuse, but does she have to sing all the slow ones? On a side note, I should point out that Neko's duties as backup singer have been passed on to apparently permanent new member Kathryn Calder -- perhaps another sign the New Pornos are on the decline?

Strangely, odd-man-out Dan Bejar outshines his fellow band members on Challengers. I've always suspected Bejar would be the first to renege on the whole New Pornos arrangement --damn you, Destroyer! Perhaps part of that shameless placating I mentioned earlier involved Bejar saying, "I'll do some songs, if I can have 'Myriad Harbour.'" Or maybe Newman simply recognized Bejar would be the best vocalist for what is easily the most ground-breaking track on the album, which I heard another blogger say reminded him of the way he felt when he first heard the Pixies. "Myriad Harbour" has everything a good power-pop/folk/rock song demands: jangly guitars, a catchy beat, the ramblings of an apparent mad-man (maybe that's where the Pixies' analogy comes in?)

Newman did wrestle a few gems here, such as the wistful builder "Unguided" or the closest track on Challengers to the incredible chant-inducing "Bleeding Heart Show," "Adventures in Solitude." If only "All Those Old Showstoppers" or "All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth" lived up to their names. And don't even get me started on "Mutiny, I Promise You."

Challengers reflects AC Newman's desire for a more folky, less power-pop sound -- a successful if not seamless transition. Let's hope the shift is merely a new, intriguing addition to the New Pornos' palette, and not the end of an era.

Note: No Neko accompanying the New Pornos at Pitchfork Music Fest 2007. Maybe that guy's big head is covering her.

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