Yesterday the New Pornographers helped us celebrate independence, today we return the favor and independently help celebrate the New Pornographers. The free Fourth Of July River To River show was a rain-battling blast; Neko was in tow, though no go on Destroyer (bummer). The last two times we’ve seen ‘em (Lolla ’06 and Coachella ’07) were great, but yesterday’s gig had something more; maybe it’s ’cause we’ve spent so much time with Challengers recently that simply opening with “All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth” was enough to please, maybe having Case along gave the Pornos some added swagger. If we were to quantify our enjoyment in amount of pictures taken, then this was some fucking show. We’ll give you the pic spread in a sec, but first, we prematurely evaluate…
Carl Newman writes Challengers‘ press-ready song notes, but it’s an all-for-one communalism creating the New Pornographer’s patented sound. The “Canadian supergroup” tag’s been bandied about from day one. Where each contributor came from doesn’t matter — it’s how they fuse together as a well-oiled, immaculate pop machine. Buttressed by very compatible neighbors, each player reaches for his or her best (well, minus Bejar, who always sounds great in this setup, but remains more excellent when given a mile to roam in his solo work).
OK, two quick pics, then back to the record…
The Pornographers’ patent includes kinetic group blasts, Twin Cinema, Electric Version, and Mass Romantic‘s biggest, catchiest jams. A stately departure, Challengers is the band’s slowest album, roaming into a thoughtful, more mature sound. (If you get lonely, though, there are throwbacks to speedier times: Play “All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth” and the excellent “Mutiny, I Promise You” on repeat.)
Equally important to Challengers‘ identity is the shift in production. It’s the first album recorded “largely” outside of the group’s usual Vancouver studio, and they also grabbed a string section, harp, flute, etc. It’s the most varied, natural production to date: Fewer vocal effects (less distant/more intimate), and a generally live/analog instrumental sound. In this setting, the two distinct songwriters sound even more distinct. It’s great, abundantly telling to hear Bejar’s finale — “The Spirit Of Giving”‘s church leading, innuendo-laced, “I was sick of America and her screaming decay” handclapping sing-a-long — after Newman’s spacious, halting banjo-harp-piano-strings-mandolin-and-niece-toting finale, “Adventures In Solitude”. Revisiting the past work, there’s sameness in the song-by-song mix, regardless of the writer, reducing the staying power of the pop. A couple years after its release, safe to say Twin Cinema sports timeless songs (close your eyes and point), but Challengers holds up better as a cohesive whole — and will likely sprout some timelessness of its own.
New production, new pace ? Challengers includes other firsts: first use of French horn (“My Rights Versus Yours”) and first track with Kathryn on full-on lead vocals (tremulous, handclapping “Failsafe”). Speaking of firsts: Some people weren’t so hot on “My Rights” when it first started streaming, but on top of its airy gorgeousness, in the song notes, Newman writes it’s “a stream of consciousness story-of-my-life type of song.” If you couldn’t get behind it before, maybe knowing its a life story will bring out a satisfying heart thump in the already spare, emotional lyrics (“You left your sorrow dangling / It hands in the air like a school cheer”). Our outlook on the track certainly shifted; it killed at Battery Park.
We’ve mentioned the Brooklyn recording studio. Well, this is also the NP’s New York album. Newman’s a Brooklynite now, feels okay talking about the West Village in flames in “Challengers,” and even Bejar gets in on the action with the best song on the album, “Myriad Harbour” (see MP3 below) and its strutting, sexy P.S.1 and Bleeker Avenue namedrops. He’s peppered songs with New York in the past — see “Jackie, Dressed In Cobras,” etc. — but this is the clearest and most addictive: “I said to Carl, ‘Look up for once, see just how the sun sets in the sky.’ / I said to John, ‘Do you think the girls here ever wonder how they got so pretty?’ Ah, well I do!” Oh, Dan! Newman’s biggest New York song, “Unguided,” is his longest composition to date. He notes, “It is all about August 2005, everything up in the air, it was very hot, and I was camping out in New York for a week.” He’s a temporary boarder dealing with a “heave wave humming in the house of cards”; the pulsing, incremental build (“some-thing un-guid-ed in the sky to-night”) is a musical coda bound for Broadway (or at least for slow dances everywhere). Keep thinking big, Carl.
All this and we haven’t discussed the breezy Bejar come-on “Entering White Cecilia” or Neko on the lovely “Go Places” (speaking of which, check out the atmosphere she adds to “Challengers”). Is there a dud? Not really. The mustachioed fella on the front cover swears the entire thing’s a grower, not a shower. We agree, but for different reasons.
P.S. Has anyone pre-ordered the “Executive Edition”? These dozen songs are rich enough; curious to know how others are dealing with all those “B-sides, demos and alternate versions,” live performances, videos, etc.
So, armed with that love for the new, the healthy mix of Challengers and past triumphs made the Pornos’ free Battery Park show a celebration in more ways than one. “All The Old Showstoppers” was a showstopper in itself, the title track a smooth way to soak in the river air, sounding perfectly at home next to classics like “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” “The Bleeding Heart Show,” “Use It,” “Jackie’s Dressed In Cobras,” “The Jessica Numbers,” “Twin Cinema,” “From Blown Speakers,” “The Laws Have Changed,” and “Mass Romantic.”
So, to get a taste of what Challengers offers, here’s two of the record’s finest moments…
- The New Pornographers – “Myriad Harbour”Download
- The New Pornographers – “My Rights Versus Yours”Download
And now, lots of pictures of Carl, Neko, Kathryn, and the rest of the Pornos, new and old — followed by some pics of opening act Midlake (who also were excellent — but the 5th of July is for the New Pornographers).