When an indie rock band cites Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb and Brian Wilson as the songwriters who inspire them the most it might just make you curious enough to check out the band’s library. In the case of The New Pornographers that would be to your benefit because you’d have four albums of complex, smart, witty music to plunder. But if you don’t have a lot of time you might want to start with the band’s new release Challengers. All the experience of their past albums, all the gelling as a band, all the new tricks of the trade combine for a sublime 12 song cycle that will expose you to the very best the band has to offer.
The New Pornographers formed in 1997 and have managed to retain members despite solo successes in music and other art forms. Headlining the band is A.C. Newman who is responsible for 9 of the tracks. The other 3 tracks are written by Dan Bejar. Neko Case may be the best known member of the group, and she has her shining moments, but so does Kathryn Calder (Newman’s niece) who debuts on lead vocals; however, all members of the band garner credit for the totality of the band’s success. Bassist John Collins produced the disc with Newman and Phil Palazzolo. Drummer Kurt Dahle produced drum tracks.
Newman, who recently married and moved from Vancouver to New York, admits that the sound of the band is more organic and acoustic on this release. He eschews the synthesized layering of past albums for real strings, horns, banjo, mandolins and harp. Thanks to the milder production qualities the vocals on the disc tend to be more clearly defined and nuanced than those previously identified with the band.
Newman’s lyrics are more introspective and match the quiet attitude of the music. If not for Bejar’s songs this might have been The New Pornographer’s folk-pop album. It’s easier to hear the influence of Brian Wilson and Jimmy Webb on these tracks. And as for Bacharach, the band’s sophisticated multi-layered production is easier to decipher minus the synthesized effects. Each part is more clearly defined and it is that ability to peel one vocal from another that brings to mind the songs of the master.
Standout tracks on the release include Newman’s “My Rights Versus Yours” which aspiring lyricist should study, Bejar’s joyfully funny “Myriad Harbour” and the song which is the most readily identifiable New Pornographer song “All The Things That Go To make Heaven and Earth.”