In Brief: Easily their most fun record since Twin Cinema almost 10 years ago. I love how energetic this record is and how the shared lead vocals on several tracks add to the sense of camaraderie. There might be one or two clunkers, but amidst 13 tracks, they’ve got a little room to fiddle around.
I’ve been keeping tabs on The New Pornographers for about three album cycles now, and I’m often fascinated by how the various members of this group will break off and do their own thing for a few years, and then come back together like some sort of a subversive indie rock Voltron, bringing a lot of the lessons learned in their solo efforts and side project together to make albums that might not be terribly cohesive, but that are usually a lot of fun to listen to. While I didn’t get on board until the group’s fourth album Challengers was a few years old, I think I might have had an easier time getting into them when they weren’t doing nearly everything on full blast, all the time, like they did in their old days. Even if their third record Twin Cinema later became my favorite disc of theirs, Challengers and Together had some more down-tempo material that showed me the band’s more introspective side, while solo efforts by bandleader Carl Newman, sidekick Neko Case with the fiery redhair and the brassy powerhouse vocals, and his niece/her understudy Kathryn Calder (who has slowly become my favorite member of the band) demonstrated vivid imagination as expressed through very distinct personalities. (I really should give some of Dan Bejar‘s other projects a listen sometimes, but to be honest, I’m a bit intimidated.) I couldn’t really give you much of a description that would pin down their evolving musical style over the years, but I could tell that since they had become known for their exuberance and their sassy yet surreal lyrics, some fans weren’t entirely happy with the shift to mellower material on some of their later records.
By all accounts, it would seem that their latest record, Brill Bruisers, is out to recapture some of that relentlessly up-tempo magic. I’m not going to say that it’s a return to the sound of their earliest records (which had its charms but which at times can be too rough around the edges for me personally), or that it’s Twin Cinema Part II, since I think this new one works a lot more keyboards and electronic elements into their music than they’ve done previously. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of musical muscle here, because this band’s guitarist and their rhythm section are no slouches. Never have been, never will be. But it’s a record that seems to have come from a period of genuine renewal and rediscovery in Newman’s life, and that seems to have permeated most of the songs on this record, even the bizarro ones written and performed by Bejar that always show up to turn your expectations on their heads just when you were getting the hand of a New Pornos record.
If there’s one drawback to Brill Bruisers, it’s the same weakness that usually rears its ugly head due to the typical length of their albums. They usually run 12-14 songs, and here we’ve got 13, and that does leave room for some tracks that unfortunately feel like filler. It’s not as major of an issue here as it was on Together, where it felt like most of the back half was weaker material. Some of the catchiest and most intriguing material on the record shows up in its latter half, actually. During my first few trips through the record, I had my gripes with the ladies not getting enough time on lead vocals, which I guess is something that bugs me on every New Pornos record, but then I suppose they don’t write the songs – only Newman and Bejar do. (Though since both of them are such intriguing songwriters, they really oughta reconsider this approach someday.) The best tracks definitely bring together the strengths of every player involved, making the band feel like the dream team it was designed to be (I would say “supergroup”, but the band apparently hates the term). You could easily cut the 3 weakest tracks from this project and have a lean-and-mean collection of 10 songs that range from pretty darn good to stellar. For the most part, Brill Bruisers is a record that makes you feel the same enthusiasm the band apparently had when they were making it.
1. Brill Bruisers
You can expect many things from The New Pornographers’ best anthems: A crunchy, yet poppy rhythm, cryptic lyrics that play with alliteration at the apparent expense of clear meaning, and most notably, and an exuberant vocal hook that ensures the catchiest part of the song might not even involve words at all. If you remember this as “The Bo Ba, Ba-Ba-Ba Bo Song”, I wouldn’t blame you. I don’t glean meaning from the lyrics here, so much as I do from Carl Newman’s statements about his mood when writing the album, which is basically that he had finally reached a point in his life where nothing was holding him back. The lyrics do allude to being out at sea and knowing never to go back, and I get the impression that this song was designed to triumphant slam the door in the face of past demons. Whatever you get out of it, the sheer sound of it oughta be enough to put a huge smile on your face.
2. Champions of Red Wine
I always look forward to the two or three songs per album on which either of the ladies gets to sing lead. It just seems like there are never enough of these. To be fair, neither Neko nor Kathryn actually writes songs for the band (exactly why is a mystery, since both are intriguing songwriters in their own markedly different ways). But I still appreciate the diversity. Interestingly, this track was meant to be more of a group effort, until Carl decided he liked it better with Neko’s voice out there mostly on its own, so he scrubbed most of the other vocals from the finished product. (Kathryn does sneak in for a little bit of vocal harmony in the second verse and chorus, and I do hear a little bit of Carl in the bridge.) The result is quite up-tempo, but not as in-your-face poppy as the title track, allowing some interesting vocal samples and electronic textures to provide most of the hook value, and intentionally shying away from a massive chorus. (There’s also a sweetly exotic guitar solo in the middle eight.) Despite the less blatant approach, it’s still one of the most immediately appealing tracks on the record, and with intriguing lyrical quips like “I think we could save lives/If we don’t spend them” sassily delivered by Neko, it’s easy to see why Carl couldn’t imagine them being delivered by anyone else.
3. Fantasy Fools
As easily as Carl can come up with mesmerizing vocal hooks and stomping rhythms, he can also come up with some rather confusing ones, where I’m not sure if he’s trying to subvert the inherent catchiness of a song or if he just doesn’t realize he’s futzed with it a bit too much for it to really hit home. My initial impression of this song, with his sampled and pitch-shifted “oh-oh-oh” hook sounding like it’s missing the expected backup from his bandmates, was that it was a bit of an also-ran, destined to be overlooked in favor of bigger and badder songs in the New Porno canon. It’s started growing on me more recently, but it still seems like it trips over itself in a few places. The lyric may be one of Newman’s more intriguing ones, not so much for the words themselves (which deal with “fortune seekers” apparently being blindsided by disasters they couldn’t see coming), but more for the little skips and jumps in the rhythm that seem to follow the uneven syllables of his words. The “everybody sings excitedly” approach on the chorus seems to bring everything back into focus. Though what the trailing refrain of “You’re gonna need your body” means in reference to the rest of it, I have no clue. It’s classic Carl.
4. War on the East Coast
I always expect Dan Bejar’s contributions to New Porno albums to come right the heck out of nowhere and have pretty much nothing to do with anything else on the record. I like to imagine him as some of grizzled old songwriting wizard whom they visit every time they’re working on a record, and if they bring the right magical ingredients, he’ll reward them with a bizarre song or three. I go back and forth on whether his voice helps or hinders the bands – his contributions to Challengers (and out-of-character record for the band in general) were generally highlights, while I didn’t care much for any of his material on Together. He’s back to more or less knocking ’em out of the park on this record, and this one’s definitely his strongest entry, with the chug-a-chug guitars meeting 80s-styled keyboards and a truly unexpected harmoica rip, as he recounts stream-of-consciousness details about Vancouver and Victoria drowning in the ocean and some sort of a strange war between the east and west coasts that involves gypsies and “blondes, brunettes, paper jets” and other things that you’re better off not trying to make sense of. It’s probably one of the most straightforward songs he’s given the band in a while, and they clearly all had a blast with it.
As the stormy seas of the previous song fade into a wash of synthesizers, I’m pretty much immediately hook by the Autotuned-into-oblivion vocal hook that opens up this mid-tempo anthem: “Taking the backstairs, taking the backstairs!” This one seems to be about Carl’s love for exploring the various meanings of the word “back”, and it might be one of the more autobiographical songs of the bunch, celebrating the less-traveled road to success by way of his unique vocabulary. Even though this one’s clearly his baby, he makes great use of Kathryn and Neko, whose backing vocals are so iconic that they threaten to overshadow the lead at several point. “There is another west much wilder”, he assures us on the chorus, as if it’s his sly little way of saying that Hollywood isn’t the only place a hard-working musician can hit it big. Indeed, the music scene in the Pacific Northwest has been good to the band, and this might be their own little tribute to the little slice of Canada (and America) that they know best.
6. Marching Orders
The up-tempo good times just keep on coming as Neko takes the lead once again, singing defiantly over another driving guitar rhythm (both acoustic and electric this time, which I love), questioning the status quo of some military force giving her orders that she doesn’t feel like following. (Which is probably a metaphor for the hitmakers in the music industry, but a lot of these songs are so open-ended that the next listener might get something completely different out of the exact same words.) The chorus has one of those lyrical quips that seems redundantly obvious and yet speaks volumes at the same time: “They say we can’t make this stuff up/What else could we make?” Tack on a bit of “We won’t go, so hell no” at the end, and you’ve got just about the most cheerful little protest song ever written.
7. Another Drug Deal of the Heart
I gave way too much weight to this odd little minute-and-a-half interlude the first several times I listened to the album. I was furious, because it’s the only song on which Kathryn gets a clear lead vocal all the way through (which seems to happen only once per album ever since she joined the band, but at least it’s usually a full song!), and there’s plenty to like about its quirky keyboard-driven goodness and it’s dark but intriguing lyrics (“Are you sure we bought the right thrill here?” is another one of those lyrics that could have about a million meanings), but then it just sort of starts to repeat itself and it sputters out. I’ve realized that I was being a bit irrational to act like the band was giving Kathryn only this small scrap of the album, when she does in fact contribute quite a bit to several other songs. Still, this one feels like a frustrating tease, though there’s nothing about it that is inherently unpleasant to listen to. It just ends way too soon and leaves me wondering what the heck happened to the rest of the song.
8. Born with a Sound
My irrational frustration had also spilled over into this song at first, and it’s a song that I’d never have an excuse to be mad at if it turned up on a record by Destroyer or one of Dan Bejar’s other projects. It’s another solid, chugging rocker, full of gritty guitars and fun synths to balance out the angst, and it’s all about having a song stuck in your head and not knowing how to get it out. (I’m not sure if that’s from the perspective of a musician not knowing how to bring a song from his imagination to a concrete recording, or just a listener who finds it annoying but can’t stop humming the tune. But that’s further than I usually get with Bejar’s lyrics.) Amber Webber of fellow Vancouver-based indie band Black Mountain shows up to offer an attitude-laden duet vocal, and well… that was exactly my problem at first. Why couldn’t Kathryn or Neko sing this part when they already had so few songs set apart for them on this record? It just seemed unfair, especially when Amber’s voice isn’t that radically different from what either of those ladies might have done with it. I can’t fault her for it – her performance is appealing and I like how her voice melts into Bejar’s wry and sinister singing style.
9. Wide Eyes
The first true clunker on the record appears rather late in the game, thankfully. Every song that Newman had given us up to this point was distinctive in some enjoyable way, but this one feels like a half-hearted reject from his underwhelming solo record Shut Down the Streets (right down to Neko’s harmony vocal on the chorus, which is its lone bright spot). Everyone just sort of feels like they’re barely trying here, from the limp drums in a lopsided time signature, to the barely-there rhythm guitar, to the “ooh”s and “oh” that Newman croaks out at the beginning of the song, which next to his usual wordless vocal hooks, sound about as enthusiastic as a puppy that’s so dejected, all it can do is whimper instead of bark. The song clearly wants to be uplifting – its chorus proudly proclaims, “And if I see no hope for me/I still see hope for you/In the high rise of the morning/The exception that proves the rule.” There’s a great seed of a song in there somewhere, but nobody brought anything dynamic to the table this time around, so this song is just sort of “there”.
10. Dancehall Domine
Just when I was starting to worry that the band might be settling into the late-album doldrums like they did on Together, along comes one of the most kick-ass songs that the band has ever recorded. It’s another Newman song, but he generously gives the chorus to Kathryn, and between her bold declaration of “I’ve got, got the floor!” and one of the most fun “oh-oh-oh” hooks he’s ever managed to string together, it’s hard not to instantly fall in love with this one. The rhythm guitars are hot and heavy, and the rhythm section is delightfully tight here, so it’s a fitting swan song for drummer Kurt Dahle, who decided to get off the New Porno train after this album was in the can. The tongue-twisting lyrics are full of alliteration, making them great fun to sing along with, and what could be a monotonous bridge, with the band mostly slamming on the same chord over and over, is saved by a skronking horn section that comes out of nowhere, their cacophonous melody reminding me of the War song “Low Rider”, of all things.
I think this song actually was adapted from a Destroyer song. Bejar just changed out a letter and I honestly don’t know what else he did differently here, not having heard the original. It’s a short little tune, but it’s delightful in its unpredictability, starting out with little other than a seething electronic pulse, and then treating us to what seems like a rarely heard vocal pairing as Neko comes in on harmony vocals. (Newman never seems to pop up on the Bejar songs and vice versa, and I honestly can’t remember either of the ladies contributing much outside of a group chorus vocal on any of his songs, either.) There’s something charmingly unrehearsed about it, as she messes up at one point when she thinks it’s the final line of the song but Dan goes one more round, and I swear you can hear her whisper an f-bomb into the mic when she realizes her mistake. (Neko’s most recent solo album has a few examples of the power of a precisely placed f-bomb, but I’m pretty sure this one wasn’t planned.) Most surprising is when Dan lets his harmonica loose yet again, since the electronic setting makes that about the last thing you’d expect, and then when the percussion just goes bonkers at the end of the song. I wish there were a little more to this one, but it’s still a blast.
OK, so let’s see… Sluggish mid-tempo pace? Check. Sorta half-there Newman vocal hook? Check. Nothing loud or dynamic going on, but also nothing sparse or quiet enough to be dramatic? Check. I want to appreciate the staccato strings, and the surreal chorus lyrics that sing of “Floating untethered in space/Unfolded into madrigals”, but the music isn’t doing anything nearly psychedelic enough to suit them. This one’s basically “Wide Eyes” all over again, and since that song’s lyrics even mentioned a “high rise”, I can’t help but think that the two songs are somehow linked. That’s fine. They can join hands and lackadaisically skip their way on down to Fillersville, for all I care.
13. You Tell Me Where
Thankfully, instead of sputtering across the finish line (which I would have expected after that last song), the band sprints back into action for the grand finale, bringing us another massive up-tempo sing-along that gives pretty much everyone in the band a turn to shine. Gurgling keyboards get it off to a start, but it isn’t long before the muddy rhythm guitars and the slamming drums are off at breakneck speed. This is one of the few New Pornos songs that has no clear leader – Newman starts it off, but Neko and Kathryn both take over at crucial points during the song, making it feel like one of the group’s most democratic efforts to date. The tag team approach is fitting, since the song seems to be an ultimatum to some sort of a naysayer who feels that the band has something to prove to them. Clever quips abound, most notably this little barb in the second verse: “With all your sh!t talking, all your blue stocking/And your spell check, you want some hell? Check!” By the time the chorus rolls around, which is repeated many times as monstrously as the band can muster to close out the album, it becomes a badass boast of epic proportions: “You tell me where to be, I’ll be there!” The whole thing is so wonderfully weird that, just like “Stacked Crooked” on Twin Cinema, it feels like it could have gone nowhere but at the tail end of the record.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Brill Bruisers $1.50
Champions of Red Wine $1.75
Fantasy Fools $1
War on the East Coast $1.50
Marching Orders $1.25
Another Drug Deal of the Heart $.25
Born with a Sound $1
Wide Eyes $.25
Dancehall Domine $2
You Tell Me Where $1.50
Carl Newman: Lead and backing vocals, guitar, ebow, synthesizer, harmonica, pump organ, xylophone
Dan Bejar: Lead and backing vocals, guitar, synthesizer, melodeon, harmonica
Neko Case: Lead and backing vocals
Kathryn Calder: Piano, keyboards, lead and backing vocals
John Collins: Bass, guitar, synthesizer, ebow, backing vocals
Kurt Dahle: Drums, percussion, backing vocals (left after this recording)
Todd Fancey: Guitar
Blaine Thurier: Synthesizer
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: