Friday, August 31, 2007

152. The New Pornographers: Challengers (2007)

The unique thing about The New Pornorgraphers is that there's no clear hipster consensus on which of their albums is best. One camp says their debut, Mass Romantic, was the bee's knees, and subsequent albums have been a disappointment. Others find the first album too strident, and believe the group really got it together on Electric Version. Still others feel Twin Cinema was where it all came to fruition.

Critics and the fans who care about them love nothing more than a good galvanizing mass opinion, regardless of whether or not there's any truth behind it. This would seem to speak well of the Pornographers, saying that each of their albums has merit. And go ahead and try to find me a critic or fan who has bad things to say about band leader A.C. Newman's solo jaunt The Slow Wonder. You won't be able to do it.

The New Pornographers' new album Challengers, is actually getting some comparisons to The Slow Wonder. This is good. But in the same breath, many reviews repeat the exact same sentiment that was trotted out about Twin Cinema: It's too slow and melancholy, not as joyous as past efforts.

While context is important, sometimes I'd like to invent a drug that makes critics temporarily forget an artist's previous work and judge a new record on its own merits. While I'm at it, I'd outlaw the phrase "I like their first EP best." That said, the criticism of Twin Cinema is even more applicable to Challengers. This is not an album that will grab you by the collar and shake you. More likely, it'll sidle up and insinuate itself slowly.

The CD features several mid-to-down tempo songs: the title track, My Rights Versus Yours, Failsafe, Unguarded, Go Places and Adventures In Solitude. While not attention-grabbing, these songs have a beauty to them, especially with leads and harmonies from Kathryn Calder and Neko Case (about whom no one disagrees; she's h-o-t).

Of course there are the requisite New Pornographers stompers: All The Old Showstoppers, All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth and Mutiny, I Promise You. I assure you, they still have that old sugar rush.

Finally, I've never found Dan Bejar's compositions, sung in a pinched voice, to be of the same caliber as A.C. Newman's. I don't blame him; Newman is a wonder. Nevertheless, on Challengers Bejar finally delivers a song that's as good, if not better, than any of Newman's. Myriad Harbor, with its call and response vocals and pounding backbeat is one of my favorite songs on the whole record.

I guess that's a lesson to those critics. You've gotta give a band a chance to surprise you, to allow them to win you over anew with each record. When the dust settles, I'm guessing Challengers will be regarded as yet another challenge to create a consensus about the New Pornographers' recording career. There's not the constant energy of the first two records, and nothing as amazing as the last 2 minutes of Twin Cinema's The Bleeding Heart Show, but the new album is still something special, and better than lots of other records you'll hear this year.

On that, I hope, we can all agree.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Myriad Harbor