New Pornographers shift to lower gear for 'Challengers'
The stuff we love about the New Pornographers -- sweet, odd chord changes; inscrutable lyrics; elegantly dorky choruses -- are alive and well on "Challengers," the Canadian indie rockers' fourth album.
But something has changed. The pace is slower, the mood mellower. Instrumentation is less frenzied. Moments of epic sweep materialize briefly and then vanish, almost at random. Euphoria and melancholy, the band's strongest suits, seem to have agreed to meet in the middle. Mostly, it sounds like the band has taken its collective foot off the accelerator.
The title song and opening tracks on the band's last album, 2005's "Twin Cinema," came barreling out of the speakers, hooks bared and guitars flashing, spoiling for a pillow fight. It was the very sound of power-pop exuberance. "My Rights Versus Yours," the lead track on "Challengers," sets a different tone, ambling in on waves of strummed guitar and harmonies before settling into midtempo refrains that hover prettily and go nowhere. That's followed by "All the Showstoppers," a grab-bag of Southern-rock grooves, elaborate string-section breaks, and perky keyboards. The New Pornographers love their kooky juxtapositions. Like many of the songs on this album it's cheerful and weird, winsome and well-crafted -- but nearly devoid of punch and bite.
The gripping rockers are, depressingly, throwbacks. "All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth" evokes the group's spastic early work, and "Mutiny, I Promise You" -- an irrepressible mash of rock guitars and primitive organ, smashing tambourines and tricky time signatures, slathered with layer-cake vocals -- could have been an outtake from the "Twin Cinema" sessions.
A.C. Newman, the band's chief songwriter and singer, is enamored of quirky song patterns and witty arrangements; his 2004 solo album, "The Slow Wonder," was a brainy masterpiece. But his new ideas feel a bit anemic, and occasionally forced, and worst of all, disposable. So when a ballad as simple and gorgeous as "Adventures in Solitude" shows sup, it takes your breath away. Likewise, the title track is sung by Neko Case, a rising alt-country star in her own right whose alluring voice infuses songs with an emotional depth that's perpetually eluded the New Pornographers.
Dan Bejar (a.k.a. Destroyer) penned a few tracks for the album, and his Bowie-esque contributions -- especially "Myriad Harbour" and album closer "The Spirit of Giving" -- feel fresh and striking. It's a feeling that arrives far too infrequently.