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MP3 Music, August 21, 2007
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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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The New Pornographers are far more sweeping, ambitious and powerful. They might as well just be rock stars -- they're as good as any rock stars ever to roam the planet. They are all highly skilled musicians, from the drummer on up. The arrangements are meticulous and yet never feel over-thought or overdone. The lyrics on this new album are somewhat less obscure than on previous records -- obviously they are very heartfelt, as other critics have noted.
The intensity of most of the Newman numbers is perfectly balanced by Bejar's goofy but equally compelling contributions, and, appropriately, they give him the closer because it's the most beautiful song he's ever written for the band.
Like "Twin Cinema," this album holds up to repeated listenings, and each time a new song emerges as a favorite. Now I've come round full circle and my favorite song is the first track, "My Rights Versus Yours," an ingenious tune with a great melody, a dramatic arrangement, a perfect vocal arrangement and solid lyrics. The song, which kicks off the CD, perfectly encapsulates the CD as a whole. It starts out very delicately, quieter than anything they've done up to this point. But after the first verse, the rhythm section kicks in and starts driving the song, and you see that the fragile melody is actually quite a bit sturdier than it first seemed. Finally the whole thing resolves into a churning, thrashing beat, over which Carl, Neko and whoever else harmonize on a lyrical fragment like a kind of chant. And then it's over -- NP songs generally do not outstay their welcome. Nor does this album.
A few other current favorites: "Challengers," great vocal arrangement. "All The Things That Go To Make Heaven and Earth," a Twin Cinema-remiscent rocker, but somehow cleaner and more from the gut. "Myriad Harbor," one of Dan Bejar's most amusing tunes ever. "Unguided," the emotional heart of the album, and their longest song ever. "Go Places," where, after a diversion for some more Bejar zaniness, comes the payoff. "Mutiny I Promise You," the album's only real throwback, this song would have been the best tune on Electric Version.
If you've read this far, you know you're going to get it, so just buy it and enjoy it.
That's not true. I can't stand what I consider the more manic stuff on here, like Myriad Harbour, All The Things, Entering White Cecilia, and Mutiny. They scream at me as I rush to turn the sound down.
My Rights Versus Yours, Challengers, Go Places, and particularly Unguided have poignant and rich lyrics that gain more meaning to me after continued listening. They're wrapped in nicely layered sound that just reverberates around my car when I'm listening to them. I listened to a preview of the title track before I bought it and was really sucked in, ended up buying the entire album. Now all four of these tracks are in my top 25 most played on my iPod in the last three years, and I've only owned them for one!
I hope I don't offend the diehards - not my intention! This is just an opinion of a curious listener. I continue to be intrigued by this album that has four of my favorite songs and four of my least favorite in one place. And regardless, it was WELL worth the purchase.
N.P. is a rock band. But it isn't a group of people who just take a tune and jam with it, recording as they go. This stuff is composed, arranged, and must require many, many rehearsals prior to recording. N.P. uses a huge variety of rhythms, melodies, chord structures, and instrumentation. Better yet is that there are counter rhythms, melodies, chord structures, and instrumentation. If you don't particularly care for what you are currently hearing, just wait 15 seconds. Stuff changes a lot. I am constantly thinking "how did he (he, being A. C. Newman, I believe) come up with that".
The above described type of music, to me, makes N.P. (particularly this album) a group to be listened to - not a background type of thing, though their earlier albums are more standard R&R, and therefore more of something I might put on in the background. This album made me buy their first three. My take is that they are progressing from a "never quite standard" R&R band to something different, something special. I don't like the method of recording the first album - to me, it is somewhat muffled. The second album is still more of a pure R&R. It's still really good, with some of the chord and instrumentation variations but, generally speaking, each cut keeping the beat it started with all the way through. Album three is a continued expansion of Newman's talent, and properly fits between the R&R and the "not sure what to call it" style of album four.
What groups does N.P. sound like? Nobody I know. But while listening, certain parts make me think of Queen, Beatles, Beach Boys, and Pink Floyd. Mostly, I think N.P. is unique.