The New Pornographers - Challengers
Release Date: August 21, 2007
Record Label: Matador
The New Pornographers have always meant a few things to me: Good, sometimes great? Sure. Unique? Of course. Genuine? Usually, yes. These are generally the characteristics of my favorite bands, but The New Pornographers have never managed to fall into that esteemed category. Their downfall is that they're simply not memorable. As a matter of fact, even when the members of this band release (good) solo records, I rarely find myself reaching for them. So far, they've always been like that unknown song on the radio you appreciate, but once the next song comes on and the Radio DJ fails to mention what tracks he's spinning, they're lost in time forever.
Perhaps I could attribute this to their extreme Power Pop leanings. While A.C. Newman would like you all to appreciate the slower moments of the past three Pornos records, this has always been a band with a boundless amount of energy, with their ideas exploding forth in a rush and speeding by in a blur. When somebody asks me to explain a blur, all I can say is that it was a blur, and the same thing applied for a New Pornos track. I knew for sure what it was, but I could never really say what made it that much different from the last. Not to say The New Pornographers have never been good, in fact they're typically good, but even blurs can be fun to look at and easy to forget (ever been on drugs?).
Challengers finally changes all that. They still play Pop, there's no doubt they'll never stop that, but the key thing is that they finally have ambition. A desire to go somewhere new, to defy expectations. These songs take their time unfolding; their treasures are buried beneath the surface. Fans who are unaware of The New Pornographers members' solo works will certainly be shocked and even put off by this development, but those in the know won't entirely be surprised by the transformation made here. This is practically A.C. Newman's band, so the moves he makes on Challengers are actually quite original, while Neko Case brings her Country influences into play on her two main contributions, and Dan Bejar's Singer/Song-writer talents are more prominent than ever before.
This isn't a Neko/A.C./Dan mix tape though. Their collaboration on all of these tracks raise the quality above their individual accomplishments. They enrich each other's work, as three musical masters should. The New Pornographers have always been known as a Power Pop Super-Group, but Challengers is their first actual band effort, featuring the main trio bouncing a variety of ideas off each other with remarkable results (the most notable of which being the highly ardent 6+ minute "Unguided" and the very Pixies-esque "Myriad Harbour"). While the preceding records may have been a wild party, Challengers illustrates what happens after the organized fun is over, the time where a young ruffian stumbles through the streets amidst the witching hour, arm-in-arm with his equally inebriated mates, basking in the night's memories. Even if these tracks came anywhere close to falling on their face, it still would be a valiantly commendable effort, much like a drunk man trying to walk down the boulevard.
Fortunately, the cohesiveness of this band helps these songs stay on their feet. The surprising thing is, the only two true Power Pop tracks, "All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth" and "Mutiny, I Promise You", are the only fatal slip ups. It's clear that the group's hearts were into making something fresh and these two call backs to previous albums are just self-conscious concessions for old fans who, if early critic reviews are any indicator, aren't particularly impressed with such a grand departure. Simplicity is replaced with complexity, powerful raucous is replaced with refined delicacy, and old fans are replaced with new ones.
The New Pornographers used to always be pinned into a corner. They were the superstars who had too little time to put forth the effort towards expanding their "side project" into something worth remembering, even for a casual listener like me. Challengers *ahem* challenges that critique, pushing things forward in less traditional ways. Sure, they still know their way in and out of a melody, they all know how to make delightful lyrics, and Neko is still the best voice in music, but outside of those established staples of a New Pornographers record, Challengers is not only something completely antithetic to anything they've done, it's also better in just about every way, a rare egression from a band that even I didn't expect to remember 20 years down the line. Let's hope they continue to challenge themselves in a similar way long after we expected them to fade away like those unknown radio songs of days past.
I disagree with Keatsey - this is power-pop at its finest. That is a complement - the review has it right on. Challengers is a great album and I think a step forward for the NP's. I loved Twin Cinema, but Challengers was a step forward in songwriting - both topically and musically. Neko and A.C. have it going on. I'm looking forward for many more albums from them.