Friday, September 05, 2014

CD Review: The New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers

The New Pornographers
Brill Bruisers

A review of the New Pornographers on this blog - it's like shooting fish in a barrel, yes? Search this blog and you'll find numerous entries mentioning them, and it might come close to fawning. Or maybe I'm giving myself too much credit.

Yes, I'm a fan but I'm not an everything-this-band-does-is-awesome-because-of-who-they-are fan. As much as The Electric Version restored, or confirmed, my faith in everything musical (part of it was the timing of the release and where my head was), which continued through Twin Cinema (with the still-amazing "The Bleeding Heart Show"), the albums that followed didn't immediately knock my socks off in the same way. I have grown to really like both of them, and to pick up on the subtleties at work on them. But Challengers was heavy on the mid-tempo songs and Together moved away from pure pop towards nuances that aren't exactly immediate.

But Carl Newman's so-so day still beats that pants of a lot of people's greatest days.

Most of the time, I feel like I have no idea what Newman (or Neko Case or Kathryn Calder, all of whom share lead vocal chores) are singing about. Phrases come to the surface but overall concept isn't always clear. Though maybe he's singing about the same thing. And maybe that same thing is the power of music. That's what it seemed like "The Electric Version" and "Out From Blown Speakers" were about. It always seemed like he was singing, "Just as long as it sounds right," in the former.

But each time I listen to the title track of Brill Bruisers, I change my mind about what the band is singing: is a serious on nonsense syllables or is it some approximation of "go back, b-b-back"? Also, I can't tell if all the articles that say the album pays homage to the Brill Building are accurate or just lazy journalistic connections.

The conclusion is, it doesn't really matter because this is the strongest New Pornographers album to come down the pike in quite sometime. It has the layers of arrangements that have built up on the last couple albums. Instruments come and go in an almost orchestral manner. "Wall of sound" doesn't really get to the heart of it. There's something richer happening. The back-up vocals and the guitar (acoustic? dobro? acoustic baritone?) solo in "Champions of Wine" don't fly right out into your ears. They sort of linger on the sidelines, waiting to be discovered. When that happens, it brings greater depth to the song. And it perks your ears to find more things like it.

Much of the album's initial strength relates to the songs having more pronounced guitar hooks. Dan Bejar's "War on the East Coast" (which has a darkly humorous, apocalyptic video) is built on chunky power chords. "Dancehall Domine" begins with a relentless synth beat with slashing accents from the guitars. "Marching Orders" has a marching beat and a bassline groove.

Synthesizers, of the bloopy, '80s variety, appear in a number of songs. But they aren't used as cheesy novelties nor are they exploited for their retro sound. In fact the arrangements almost give their sound more credibility.

Layers of harmonies are on tap too, most notably in the album's finale, "You Tell Me Where" which sounds like a sea of voices doing calls and responses. The blend of Newman, Case and Calder in "Wide Eyes" is pure Pornographers bliss, which also comes into play during "Backstairs." 

It's a keeper, especially on the vinyl format which, as seen above, has a beautiful design as well as a download code, which is sometimes good for bringing some clarity to the vocals that vinyl might miss. Which makes me wonder if I should have referred to that before writing.....


(PS. Full disclosure: NPs bassist John Collins produced a couple songs for my band, the Love Letters. Though, if anything, this albums confirms why we wanted to work with him.)

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