Reviews:: The New Pornographers Challenger

You are as brave as traffic... perhaps that lyrics says all you need to know about the New Pornographers. Dubbed reluctantly as a "supergroup", the Newman, Bejar, Case triumvirate is back with an album that pulls away from everything that made the band seem so light and effortless, so accessible, and frankly, so appealing. The band must have known a record full of more ballads and less pop gems would equate to less praise, but they don't seem bothered by what people think about their work.

After exploding on the scene with Mass Romantic, a record that was full of peaks and sugary highs, the band has had its own up and downs (with rotating members and the natural tendency for three feature members drifting in different directions musically). Sure, this is Newman's ship to steer, but the past efforts have had a lot more navigation support from Case and especially Bejar.

Now, each record involves a building amount of pressure and expectations. Does Challengers meet the lofty goals? Yes... and no. There are moments of brilliance on this release - My Rights Versus Yours floats along in a Wilson-like cloud and All of the Things that Go to Make Heaven and Earth is a pure pop experience that could stand among the best songs the "band" has created - but there are also some moments that leave you wishing for more. Bejar's tracks - usually my favorite of NP releases, don't measure up to his past greatness.

When I first listened to this record, I was kind of underwhelmed. I reached for skip a few times and wondered what happened. The 80's, adult pop stylings they took on the record confused me. But, with a cast of contributors as solid as the NPs , I wondered if I was rushing a snap judgment. The truth is (after countless listens), my enjoyment is really mood dependent. Sometimes I throw on the record and the comforting harmonizing of Case and Newman and the quirky, more accessible sounds of Bejar are the perfect pick me up, even without the crunchy pop riffs I crave from them. Other times, the album plods along and I wonder if I should have just replayed the solo records again and again. Challengers (the song) uses harmonies and simple textures and while I find myself drawn to Case's beautiful voice, I almost just want to hear her sing over a dusty, steel laced track.

There are not as many perky pop songs on Challengers - Mutiny, I Promise You is the only real upbeat, ear grabber on the second half of the album - and as a result you get lulled into a unjust state of complacency. Instead of power pop energy, the band is happy trying a new speed and I think this is why people are so mixed on this record. You don't get the immediate gratification you expect from the band.

I completely understand a band can't continually produce gold, and even the weaker songs on the album still would be stand outs on most indie records, but when you set the expectations as high as the NPs have on previous records, it's natural some songs will fall short. The peaks are harder to reach, and the cliff ledge of critical backlash become even more unstable. Both the praise and critiques are often overblown, and that's why this album is such a noodle scratcher. It's not as good as I wanted it to be, but it's not nearly as bad as you are lead to believe.

If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have had a much more severe opinion of the album, but now after countless listens, I'm starting to appreciate the subtleties. I know as time goes on, I'm going to discover more and more I like about the collection of songs, I've just never had to dig this deep before when it comes to these Vancouver icons.

The band (with Neko and Dan) is playing Vancouver::
September 28. 2007 @ Commodore Ballroom Vancouver, B.C.- Canada w/ Lavender Diamond & Fancey
MP3:: My Rights Versus Yours
MP3:: Myriad Harbor
web site :: myspace :: label | Canada


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