Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The New Pornographers (Brill Bruisers)

Hey! New posts two weeks in a row! Whodda thunk it? To celebrate, we return to one of the acts your blogger considers as part of his holy trinity of millennial indie rock – along with The Decemberists (NMT, NMT) and Okkervil River (NMT, NMT): The New Pornographers.

The New Pornographers
New Release: Brill Bruisers
Release Date: August 26, 2014
Record Label: Matador Records
Location: Vancouver, B.C. / Woodstock, N.Y.
Sounds Like: Polyphonic Spree (NMT); Broken Social Scene; Library Voices (NMT)

In my review of this multi-national, coed octet's fifth release, 2010's Together (NMT), I dubbed the group an "indie-rock supergroup." And while that label is just as ironic now as it was then, it's still an apt descriptor of the band, with most of the group's eight members occupying themselves with solo projects or other bands during the New Pornographers multi-year hiatuses and lead vocals shared among four singers. On their sixth full-length album, Brill Bruisers, chief songwriter A.C. Newman (NMT) remains adept at divvying-up turns out front while actually increasing the group's overall cohesiveness, no small task considering hardly any of the record's baker's dozen tracks were recorded with all the band members in the same place at the same time. Newman has proclaimed the collection – on which bassist John Collins produced along with Newman – as a "celebration record" after "periods of difficulty" which he claims were apparent on previous releases such as Together and 2007's Challengers. While I think few would describe those records as particular downers – just try calling the former's "Crash Years" or the latter's "All The Old Showstoppers" depressing – there's no doubt that from end to end, Brill Bruisers is an uplifting collection of songs.

Newman and Collins steer the group towards the decades of pop compositions manufactured by songwriters ranging from Benny Goodman and Burt Bacharach to Neil Diamond and Carole King who worked out of New York City's Brill Building referenced in the album's title. In particular, the offerings from Dan Bejar are perhaps his most accessible contributions ever in the band. In the past, Bejar's odd voice and quirky phrasing were marked counterpoints to the group's otherwise exuberant indie power-pop. Here, Bejar's jagged edges are smoothed out by a quicker pace and catchier hooks. Additionally, unlike the rest of the group's catalog, there's not a Neko Case (NMT) lead track where she powers past the other vocalists with her range and power, such "Go Places" off Challengers or "The Bleeding Heart Show" from 2005's Twin Cinema. That's no detriment considering the aforementioned cohesiveness and a re-emergent Bejar.

Come for: "Brill Bruisers" (the leadoff, title crack perfectly encapsulates Newman's drive for celebration)
Stay for: "Dancehall Domine" (a quintessential New Pornographers track on par with "Miss Teen Wordpower" off 2003's Electric Version and Together's "Valkyrie at the Roller Disco")
You'll be surprised by: "War on the East Coast" (single-handedly the best thing Bejar has ever done with the band; touches of 60s British invasion in his chorus delivery [listen to how he delivers "I don't care"] matched with an 80s synth-pop vibe)
Solid efforts: "Champions of Red Wine" (Case is in fine form on this bouncy number, with Blaine Thurier's synthesizers out front in the mix unlike few others in the group's repertoire, parrying with chugging guitars from Newman and Todd Fancey; the complex, non-lyrical vocals on the bridge are a highlight); "Fantasy Fools" (minimalist verses contrast with a highly hooky chorus fronted by Newman, with the duo of Case and Newman's niece Kathryn Calder [NMT] demonstrating the vocal depth scarce among bands of this era); "Marching Orders" (the regimental beat fits the song's title perfectly, while Case delivers Newman's songwriting and phrasing probably better than Newman himself can; could easily hear Broken Social Scene writing this one); "Another Drug Deal of the Heart" (I like the contrast of a Case lead vocals track followed by one featuring Calder, who's style is richer and more retrained than her counterpart's, but too bad it's only 1:29 long); "Born With a Sound" (really enjoy the tonal consistency among Bejar's songs on this record, plus pairing Bejar with Calder is a trick the group hasn't tried much before and it works well here); "Wide Eyes" (easily the most restrained effort on the album, with the rare appearance of some acoustic guitars a nice change of pace; Case's contributions on the chorus are the number's standout feature); "You Tell Me Where" (not wild about Newman's intro verse, but then Neko Case shows up and the power kicks in and we're all better for it)
Meh: "Backstairs" (any New Pornographers number longer than 4:00 always seems like an opus; Newman and Collins let Thurier's synthesizers and Fancy's sludgy guitars take center stage here with mixed results; the chorus is catchy enough, but there's a good minute of trippy meandering in the middle that's not my favorite; I feel the same way about this song as I did about Okkervil River's "Stay Young" off Silver Gymnasium earlier this year);  "Hi-Rise" (starts a bit slowly for my taste, but there's some reheated Bowie influence in the body of the song; really should swap places with "You Tell Me Where" as album closer)
Skip to next track: "Spidyr" (this is more like Bejar's previous material: kinda strange, although the harmonica is a nice touch)


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