The New Pornographers Challengers

[Matador; 2007]

Styles: } heat-making, over-heating, sun-beating, pop machine
Others: } Immaculate Machine, Fleetwood Mac, 1900s

Early in The New Pornographers’ career, bandleader and redheaded pop maestro Carl Newman threw out the idea that The New Pornographers aimed to behave like a folk-rock powerhouse. Three illustrious albums later, one could argue he was simply in denial. For folk stereotypes, the melodies were constantly a little too bright, the pace a bit too quickened, the guitars a smidgen too electric. For folk-rock, however, they were powerfully appropriate. Now, Challengers shoots forth from the creative womb, and finally Newman’s claim holds its weight in water, unlike, say, the busted womb: The Pornographers this time show little control over the flow of ideas and musicality brimming over every inch of this album’s edges, and it’s all the better for it. Challengers is the sound of the band both flexing and relaxing.

Flexing, firstly, their chops, and thus showing their aces. The sheer breadth of the band’s resourcefulness with pop melody fills you with warm, fuzzy feelings. These songs are undeniably catchy, just as likely to stick in your head as their more in-your-face predecessors. Which is where the relaxing comes in: listen through the first track, and you’ll hear the most subdued album-opener they're capable of. The rock comes back on “All The Old Showstoppers,” but it still doesn’t rock that hard. Essentially, the band sits back and lets all the elements fall into place around them. It can be jarring, but after multiple listens, early tracks such as “My Rights Versus Yours” and “Challengers” are among the most rewarding. With a band so full of talented individuals, it’s not shocking that they’re able to graft everything together this expertly. They play their instruments sweetly and softly, sprinting away from power chords as if they were contagious. The band doesn’t completely forgo its power-pop base, but perhaps it’s telling that poppier tracks like “All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth” and “Mutiny, I Promise You” are where the record rings most hollow.

Neko Case shines like the star on her cowboy boots. Her lovely croon in “Go Places” and the title track actually makes you glad Newman relegates her to the slow songs. The only downside is that her presence is less immediate on this occasion, not necessarily for a lack of being there, but due to super-niece Kathryn Calder. Calder takes lead duties for the first time on the regretfully short and static “Failsafe” (alternate title: “How Soon Is Now?” -- check the first couple bars). Verdict? It sounds like a less-inspired Neko Case effort. Calder has her strengths, surely, but this beat just doesn’t play up to them.

Dan Bejar, however, provides another three golden nuggets spread throughout Challengers’ fold, and coincidentally they’re the best tracks on the album (read: no coincidence). His sly charms have always rung loud over Newman’s hooks, but never has the disparity in quality and elegance been as plainly obvious as demonstrated here. After all, Challengers’ acquired sound is Bejar’s playing field. “Myriad Harbour,” easily the record’s finest moment, comes sliding out with hardly a push. Here, Bejar’s whimsical, semi-ironic musings about the Big Apple, pretty girls, and record stores (where, hopefully, all the pretty girls convene) shift gracefully, effortlessly into cries of frustration and distraction. By producing something this effortless, it’s as if he doesn’t even have to try. And when he can readily produce such an affecting song, why would he bother? Take, for example, the minimal, stilted, and ultimately rambunctious “Entering White Cecilia.” It’s actually the closest to an out-and-out Destroyer song than all previous and present Bejar cuts, but it still works surprisingly well in context. The other obligatory Destroyer remake, “The Spirit of Giving,” is weaker, but the freshly penned verse and outro bring the whole proceedings to a deservedly effervescent conclusion.

In the end, Challengers fills you up in a weird way. You’re content with listening to the band's every whim, because, hey, every whim sounds great. But maybe it’s so splendidly grand because they’ve grown too adept at pumping this sort of stuff out. Consummately professional to the end, The New Pornographers are straying away from the niche they’ve carved out for themselves, and they're doing it with skill and calm. And perhaps that should be celebrated, because Challengers is everything this sort of smooth transition ought to be. But look back to Mass Romantic; is that a band you’d ever want to see lose their edge? Or drop the fuzz? With perspective, Challengers will be a conflicting one for fans. The energy that used to be present has shortened in breath, leaving Newman’s Own running the risk of growing cold. And mechanical. Their victory here is a narrow one.

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