Music

The New Pornographers: Challengers

Photo: Marina Chavez

On the other hand, Zeth Lundy thinks the Canadian collective's surprisingly docile fourth album is rather like an engine idling.


The New Pornographers

Challengers

Label: Matador
US Release Date: 2007-08-21
UK Release Date: 2007-08-20
Amazon
iTunes

On Challengers, the New Pornographers' surprisingly docile fourth album, an engine idles. It's the same engine as before, the one that mechanized three albums of blue-in-the-face pop frenzy (Mass Romantic, Electric Version, and Twin Cinema), but that once-ardent hum is now, for the majority of this record's 50 minutes at least, a soft and gentle purr. The New Pornographers haven't lost their taste for the sharp tang of compositional hijinks, nor have they put the kibosh on lyrical abstraction. It's still easy to recognize this decade-old band as the one led by the off-kilter pop delicacies of A.C. Newman, augmented by the fractured post-modernism of Destroyer's Dan Bejar, and afforded star power by Neko Case. For the first time, however, a New Pornographers album opens not with storming confidence, but with hesitation -- hesitation that slowly builds and bubbles and plateaus, surrounded by the soft coo of background vocals and a Procol Harum organ.

That first song is "My Rights Versus Yours", and it's a lovely, lilting little thing with a tender lead vocal from Newman. Inside the narrative of limbo and instability, Newman sings of "flying the flags of new empires in rags", an image that connects with our contemporary consciousness even if it's not explicitly meant to, while the band plays on with uncharacteristic reserve. It's a revealing forecast: "All the Old Showstoppers" follows suit, conspicuous bits of prog and cello bombast stuck in its otherwise discreet escalation, and Case gets ready for her close-up on the sedate, percussion-less title track. Better still is "Adventures in Solitude", the album's penultimate track that spins emotional dizziness out of melodic counterpoint (and features one of Newman's most stirring bridges), and the waltz-time "Go Places", which wraps the voices of Case and/or Kathryn Calder (it's near impossible to tell the difference between the two since they sing so much alike) in compelling harmony. It's in songs like these that the band flaunts its percolating strengths, tempo be damned.

I take absolutely no umbrage at the Vancouver collective's change of pace -- in fact, I wholeheartedly welcome a recalibration of style after three albums of high-velocity power-pop, especially in this day and age when indie bands fail to stray far from a preordained gimmick. The problem with Challengers, however, is not its decelerated speed -- it's that the songs aren't uniformly strong. For every "Go Places" or "My Rights Versus Yours", there's an equal and opposite example of incomplete or recycled ideas. "All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth" churns like classic New Pornographers fare, but it's all formula: the pounding eighth notes, the new wave electronic gurgles, the blueprint of Electric Version's "It's Only Divine Right" traced anew. Likewise, "Failsafe", featuring a gauzy lead vocal from Calder, hijacks the tremolo propulsion of Twin Cinema's "Three or Four" and leaves an underdeveloped song in its wake.

Bejar, on the other hand, typically curbs his ramblin'-indie-man methodology for the sake of his New Pornographers contributions (three songs per album); although he retains elements of his idiosyncratic style, this band demands a certain structural coherency that his Destroyer project achingly lacks. Still, even though Bejar's hard-headed eccentricity makes him an easy target for criticism, it's difficult not to note that he is more insufferable than usual on his Challengers songs: "Myriad Harbour" sounds like it hails from an indie rock musical, "Entering White Cecilia" dials up second-rate Dylan shtick while maintaining a flair for skewed-Broadway pomp, and "The Spirit of Giving", with its pied pipes a-piping and feel-good (ironic or not) togetherness rubs a little too close to Polyphonic Spree territory.

The album's biggest question mark is Newman's six-minute "Unguided", which, for a mini-epic, is utterly deniable. It sacrifices melody and lyrical meter for supposed introspection in its first half, stuffing words into spaces that don't exist; in the second half, it guns for the floodgate-bursting sing-along magic of Twin Cinema's "The Bleeding Heart Show" but pans out as little more than pale imitation. In that moment, the New Pornographers shamelessly lobby for ambitious heroics, and it's a reach that smacks of dilettantism. Of course, they're far from dilettantes -- they're masters of this kind of expressive sweep, of juicy yet judicious hook and sinker, of blast-off wham-bam chorus -- which, in turn, begs the question: why is this band suddenly trying so hard to manufacture that which has always been its bread and butter?

5

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
8

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image