So The New Pornographers have hit these pages a few times in this blog’s inaugural year. The Canadian indie power pop supergroup is a great band that has defied the odds and last for well over the predicted one or two albums. In fact, “Challengers” is the group’s fourth album and have since come up with three more since 2007.
This album was a bit challenging (pardon the pun) for the group’s long time fans because there was less power in the pop here. All the other elements we have grown to love, the big and interesting instrumentation and arrangements, the turn taking and melodies on vocals by all four principal vocalists, and the way the different elements come together so cohesively are still prominent but just muted. For some, this meant requiring more listens to accept the new record but I had no issues at all.
For me, “Challengers” was love on first listen. Interesting, then, that many critics considered this more the natural sequel to AC Newman’s quiet debut, “The slow wonder”, an album I didn’t much care for, rather than the bombast of The New Pornos’ third record, “Twin cinema”. I thought the toned down approach allowed for the all the pieces room to grow and the results were quite stunning. I don’t know if it’s fair to call this my all time favourite of their albums, given that they are so consistently good, but it just might be.
If you’re not familiar with this stellar group or just this album (or even if you are), have a peek at my three picks for you below and let me know what you think.
“Mutiny, I promise you”: I’m not sure I know what this song’s all about but I just love the idea of promising a mutiny, usurping the captain on the high seas like a pirate. And not just warning in advance but promising it. The song is one of the more upbeat and energetic of the bunch on “Challengers”. It’s like all the instruments are turned up to eleven and their players are at them like crazy. The vocals, too, gang-like, are almost an all out shout, except they’re so beautifully harmonized between Newman and Kathryn Calder. And when they briefly pause their playing to sing “And here is the mutiny I promised you” at the bridge, it’s oh so sweet.
“Myriad Harbour”: This is easily my favourite Dan Bejar penned and sung track. He is so weird but on this track, it works. His almost whiny voice is singing conversationally, for some reason, reminding me of Lou Reed, and he’s glorifying Manhattan too, which is perfect. “Stranded at Bleeker and Broadway, looking for something to do.” The way the guitar climbs up and down, Bejar rejoins and the rest of the band responds, the harmonica flourishes, it all just makes me smile, over and over again.
“All the old showstoppers”: That Carl Newman, he’s quite the lyricist. His songs are rife with wordplay that twist and turn our normal ideas and always leave things open to interpretation. I’ve tried to untangle this one, the meaning seemingly just there beyond reach, but I’ve decided to give it up and just enjoy the tune. And “All the old showstoppers” is a fun one. A verse melody that feels very mechanical while Newman sings a call and answer with Neko Case and Calder. It all comes together joyously for the chorus though, instruments and voices in one sweet harmony.
For the rest of the albums in this list, check out my Best Albums page here.