THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS return with their fourth album and their first recorded outside of bassist John Collins's basement studio. Airier, more spacious and more relaxed than its jackhammer predecessors, 'Challengers' is the sound of songwriters Carl Newman and Dan Bjar stretching out. In a recent Pitchfork interview, Newman rejected the "power-pop" label and suggested "power-folk" instead, and several songs on the new album live up to it, particularly the luscious Neko Case fronted ballads "Go Places" and "Challengers." That's not to say the band doesn't play anthems - it certainly does, but a rousing track like Bjar's "Myriad Harbour" is more imbued with the ghosts of Fred Neil and Viv Stanshall than with the new-wave songsters of yore. In general, Newman's songwriting is slightly more scrutable this time around; his lyrics still ring with wry perception and political metaphor, but betray some of the magnanimity that comes with new love - "our arms fill with miracles", he writes in "Go Places".
Pay no attention to the reviews that imply the New Pornographers have "grown up" or "matured" or "drifted away" from the perfect-pop promise of their first three records. For if you throw darts at the songs on Challengers
, an ambitious soundscape that had members of the all-star Canadian band recording their parts all over North America, you'll hit one flawless song after another. "All The Old Showstoppers," "All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth," and "Mutiny, I Promise You" (with its driving Farfisa organ) all venture back to the infectiousness of the band's earlier records, with leader and chief songwriter A.C. Newman (now a Brooklyn native) penning some of the most thought-provoking lyrics this side of Billy Bragg. Yes, there are departures, including a string section, flute and harp, and Dan Bejar's foray into indie-pop hip-hop with the witty, New York-heavy "Myriad Harbour." But there's also Neko Case dominating the divine title track and equally charming "Go Places"" as only she can, Kathryn Calder making her lead-vocal debut on "Failsafe" and (with Newman) on the melancholy "Adventures in Solitude," and Newman using an ambitious six and a half minutes to write about his new home city ("Unguided"). Then, your 50 minutes--a dozen songs--are up, as is the conclusion: Grown up? Sure. Matured? OK. Still pop perfect? Utterly. --Scott Holter
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