[27 August 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The New Pornographers have long been pop purists. Despite Neko Case’s dusty solo work or Dan Bejar’s shape-shifting records as Destroyer, when they hook up with A.C. Newman and company to make a New Pornographers record, it is all about big, brash hooks. But, despite the band’s signature, maximalist sound, they have stretched the parameters of their pure pop world over the years. On Together, the band’s last record, they subverted the sunburst guitars by giving the hooks to other instruments, like the leading string section thundering through “Moves”.
Brill Bruisers is both prototypical New Pornographers stuff and another variation on the band’s established themes. Where Together gave in to strings, Brill Bruisers blares with big, neon keyboards. This isn’t apparent from jump, though. The opening title track feels of a piece with what we expect from the band. There’s sweeping power chords, earworm hooks, crashing drums. It’s the mix that tips us off that something is different. The vocal harmonies are up in the mix and writ large, overpowering the charged guitars at every turn. As the title of the album implies, it’s both a smartly constructed song and a sonic punch in the gut.
But Neko Case‘s “Champions of Red Wine” shows the shifts at play in this record. There are still crunching chords, but they are once again muted by vocal loops and, now, cascading spacey keyboards. Case’s voice gets treated with a slight echo to render its effortless beauty otherworldly. The song is full of space that lets those keys ripple, that lets Case’s voice stretch out patiently. The New Pornographers have, on this track and in the best of the record, found some distant pop astral plane.
Midway through the record, “Backstairs” pushes these boundaries even further. Chorus-treated guitars seem to mesh with watery keyboards and its muddies up the band’s usual crisp sound in interesting ways. When the song stops save a distant pinging of keys, it’s a wonderful moment of tension. “Dancehall Domine” starts with the jarring staccato of keys and loops, but then those peel away to get back to the band’s guitar-bass-drum center. “Hi-Rise” is scraped out and hollow sounding in the best way possible, and the intimacy of the song makes it feel like it could have ended up on Newman’s last solo record, except here acoustic guitars get subbed out for shimmering synthesizers.
The reliance on keyboards here is a gamble, but the finest moments maintain the band’s immediate energy without relying on cymbals and distortion. There are moments on the record, though, where the mix feels forced, the attempt to get the keys front and center too on the nose. It might be most apparent on Dan Bejar’s tracks. Bejar is in rare lean rock mode, charging through both “War on the East Coast” and “Born With a Sound” with surprising speed. But the former gets tangled up in blipping, too-shiny keys while the latter loses its edge when the heavy guitars yield to grand washes of synth.
There are other moments where the mix cuts away at the track as well. Case’s “Marching Orders” could be a jangling breather from all the smooth shininess of the rest of the record, but once again the rise and fall of glistening notes distracts a bit more than it adds. Newman’s “Wide Eyes” suffers from a similar fate as a solid song that gets a bit congested with keyboard swaths weighing everything down.
In these moments, you get the feeling these are still songs that would sound very good live, but the uniformity of the production sometimes gets in the way. The New Pornographers have spent each record pushing forward, trying new things while always sounding like themselves, and Brill Bruisers is a solid, satisfying record, one that found a fresh approach and created some more ultra-catchy pop tunes. If the freshness dulls on occasion when the new approach gets overused, you can still hear the quality underneath, even if you’re more inclined to move the needle back to the tunes that leave their bruise more immediately.