Under-realized power-pop supergroup makes its best album
I've tended to file the New Pornographers away in my mind as essentially a power-pop group with a certain amount of indie-rock clothing, which would tend to trap them in not one but two echo chambers.
Generally, power-pop records are largely known quantities before you even play a single note. And for all its aesthetic and musical virtues as a genre, so often power pop is neither particularly popular nor necessarily packed with power. Save for the odd distorted chord, the ubiquitous chirpy organs and singalong lyrics are more pinkish wafts of fancy than an actual gut-level wallop, and it goes without saying how far the “pop” of today’s airwaves has strayed from the cooing template of The Raspberries or their ‘50s/’60s idols. Like deep blues, it has become a sort of classical form best and most appreciated by music-geeks who can spot the in?uences and understand the nuances of their repackaging and assimilation into each new song.
And while the potential limits and pitfalls of indie-rock ?ag-waving are a screed best saved for a longer column, it suf?ces to say that the tendency toward snarky song titles, self-indulgent and somewhat half-assed performances (notable particularly this year at Coachella, where The New Pornos burned about 10 minutes making fun of a particularly plangent Travis set one stage away), and a general air of inside jokery either forces you to shower the band with compliments to show you’re cool enough to be in the club or else become a total hater and strain to cut them down to size.
As an ersatz supergroup, often The New Pornographers feel like less than the sum of their parts. Neko Case’s overmodest involvement in the group has always been something of a tease or red herring, and their records generally lack that sense of courageous howl against a foreboding wilderness that shakes your corners when you hear one of her solo albums. And while Dan Bejar’s songs are among the more ornate in The New Pornos canon, his work with the group lacks the complexity and intensity of Destroyer’s best work. Even the joyful classicism of Carl Newman’s Zumpano days sometimes seems blunted by the multitude of cooks and apparent overthought.
Still, for all their on-paper ?aws and tendency to be overrated for the wrong reasons, The New Pornographers’ records are always enjoyable and consistently work as collections of songs. They’re the sorts of albums you complain about even while you buy them, and up until sometime after the second listen when you’re stuck with the reality that you’d actually like to turn around and listen to the thing again.
For its part, Challengers stands out as a particularly strong effort within a very even catalog. More than the band’s other works, it carries a sense of place, as “Myriad Harbour” offers a lyrical, panoramic freeze-frame of New York while the “heat wave humming in the house of cards” in “Unguided” seems a similarly urban stir, the song unfolding into a zoom-out anthem. There’s a thread of romantic claustrophobia that winds its way through the music’s textures and rhythms, and it zings like a West Village wind on the ?rst snap of autumn. As an album built by, for and about young overthinking urbanites, it has a knowing charisma that’s never cloying, even as it retreads familiar motifs. (“Failsafe” borrows the tremolo rumble from “How Soon Is Now,” and “Mutiny I Promise You” takes the “Louie Louie” riff, spins it 45 degrees and chirps it up before burying it under a sugarburst chorus.)
The New Pornographers’ performances on Challengers are consistently excellent. Newman’s voice has warmed and grown more open while, for her part, Case’s appearances are sparse but dazzling, particularly on the title track, where two apparent lovers contemplate untangling themselves from separate cohabitations against guitar strums and a piano part so warm and open that you know they’ll manage to do it.
Listening to Challengers, one gets the sense that The New Pornographers are shooting higher than even before—there’s even a reassuring polish of darker strains in the American present, with “Adventures in Solitude” unleashing a loving “we thought we lost you … welcome back” to a soldier returning from war and “My Rights Versus Yours” contemplating the exercise of power and the turns of history over a French horn, effortless guitar and a vocoder. It’s a nuanced, artfully constructed record that gets better with each listen and crawls its way out of any box you might choose to put it in.