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LITERATURE

 » Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King's new novella questions mankind's ability to trust others.
[02.21.2011 by Bridget Doyle]

MUSIC

 » The Top 30 Albums of 2010 - Fashionably, fabulously late, our favorite music (and believe me, there was a LOT) of 2010, the year that some have called the best year for music ever. And only some of those fools work here. Plenty of usual suspects, lots of ties and a few surprises that I won't spoil, including our unexpected #1.
[12.24.2010 by The LAS Staff]

MUSIC

 » Live: Surfer Blood/The Drums at Lincoln Hall, Chicago, IL - Remember when Weezer used to put together records that you could sing along to and rock out to? That's what Surfer Blood's show was like!
[11.04.2010 by Cory Tendering]

Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
»Deerhunter
Halcyon Digest
4AD
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
»Robyn
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Konichiwa
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Lisbon
Fat Possum
New Pornographers
Challengers
Matador

Rating: 8.9/10 ?


August 21, 2007
A case could be made that the New Pornographers have some unfair advantages in the world of North American indie rock. First off, they're from Canada, the fertile ground that exports a seemingly endless supply of raw, government-financed musical talent these days (among other desirable raw materials). Secondly, they are a "supergroup" of sorts, headed up by the talents of A.C. "Carl" Newman and Destroyer's Dan Bejar. Thirdly, they are shored up with the stellar musicianship of five other members who play an array of instruments, ranging from glockenspiel and Casio to banjo and mandolin. And finally, they are blessed with the on-demand vocals of Ms. Neko Case, who has the most attractive voice in music, a point I'm ready to heartily defend. Now of course all these bennies might not mean a darn thing if the collective couldn't write songs worthy of their esteemed membership. But like that other Canuckian super-set, Broken Social Scene, New Pornographers toss off pop gems as effortlessly as you and I ride a bike.

On 2005's Twin Cinema, New Pornographers crafted an album that was loved by the public and acclaimed among critics. No less a music pundit than Andy Brown, past reviewer for this very magazine, rated it a rare perfect 10, while also posing the question of whether or not the band would stand the test of time. Well, dutiful readers, rest assured that the excellence of Twin Cinema was no accident and their follow up, Challengers, will cement the New Pornos reputation as one of the finest contemporary groups, uber or not, to put songs to tape. From the outset to the close, Challengers is an album chock full of crackling pearls, songs that are so well constructed and performed, that the album should be used as a case study for blossoming bands across the universe.

Opening missive "My Rights Versus Yours" is an immediate contender for song-of-the-year. Newman alternates between falsetto and urgency, French horns and vocal harmonies dance around each other, and the indelible lyric "the truth in one free afternoon" engrains itself in one's synapses. "All the Old Showstoppers" would be nothing special in lesser hands, with its standard bluesy backbone and familiar melody line, but the consummate professionals elevate it to something special indeed. Title track "Challengers" is the first to feature Case front and center and it is the better for it. I cannot overstate the impact of Case's voice and her ability to richen songs in both the subtlest and strongest of ways. Just listen to the way she expresses a simple line like "Another vision of us/ we were the challengers of/ the unknown" into a verse of striking beauty. "Myriad Harbor" is "Bejar's New York song," an offhand conversation among members of the band, in which Bejar urges Newman to "look up for once/ and see just how the sun sets in the sky." In true-blue New Pornos fashion, it features mostly the droll spoken word of the band in unison, over the steady rhythm section of Kurt Dahle and John Collins.

Challengers is not flawless - sorry Andy - as there are a few tracks that breeze by without making too much of an impression. But it's good to know that these Pornographers are not infallible; many of the problems with super assemblages is that they end up sounding too sterile. Going through the motions can get pretty boring, but the New Pornographers are experts who also know how to have a rollicking good time, and they manage to keep enough edge on their music to avoid sounding dull. "Unguided," which Newman bills as his New York song, is a perfect example, an epic six minute blast of oblique poetry and grand choruses. "Killing time because I have to, why?/ because it isn't mine, remember" and "why wait for the weakened state/ to lie next to the weaker sex?" sung in perfect deadpan by vocalist/keyboardist Kathryn Calder. The overtly sexual "Entering White Cecilia" features the lead vocals of Bejar, overlaid onto staccato organ and la-la-la's, a indicative juxtaposition indeed.

If almost to prove that they can write a ballad or two, Challengers ends with two of the best. "Adventures In Solitude" shares double lead vocals with Newman and Calder, in what may be the most gorgeous song of the year. When they sparsely harmonize "we thought we lost you/ it will all come back" against picking mandolin and banjo, the warmth is as unconcealed as the message. One might hear "The Spirit Of Giving" at a Sunday morning (or Saturday night) non-denominational service being led by robed Dan Bejar; that's an observance I'd willingly attend - Polyphonic Spree, take note.

Challengers stacks up against the pillar of Twin Cinema just fine; it is the more restrained of the two, equally as satisfying, and more stylistically varied. The power-group from Vancouver has notched another resounding success, enough to fuel their solo pursuits, before landing back in the studio to give an eager public more of their pitch perfect pop.

Reviewed by Ari Shapiro
A staff writer for LAS, Ari Shapiro mixes up pretty unique smoothies at XOOM in hot Tucson.

See other reviews by Ari Shapiro

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