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A second review attempt: Challengers

I put up a review of Challengers a few days ago and almost immediately took it down entirely because I was unhappy with it. This is attempt #2, and it's really only here because I wanted to write it. I owe attempt #2's existence to Bill of I Rock Cleveland, who wrote a review of Challengers suggesting the New Pornographers' had suffered from what he deemed "Sky Blue Sky syndrome." I always love Bill's reading reviews because he has a knack for cutting through other people's crap and getting down to the point. I wouldn't say I agree with him on Challengers, but his post did make me realize I what I hadn't thought about with the first review.

I became hooked on the New Pornographers as a teenager at a time when I was trying to maintain the delicate balance any ambitious teenager with strict parents strives for, knowing that to escape you first have to succeed academically. The New Pornographers were both subversive and almost garish; I saw them as being more sophisticatedly rebellious than 70's punk or anything played on the radio, and it didn't hurt that you could throw a one-person dance party to them. Mass Romantic and Electric Version were filled with great rock numbers, suitable for a good head-bobbing any day.

The change in Challengers began as an experiment in Twin Cinema, which contained the first successful New Pornographers' songs that were slower, their appeal more subtle. My favorite song off the album today is still "The Bleeding Heart Show," which I wrote my one year anniversary post about last year. "Streets of Fire", "These Are the Fables", and "Bones of An Idol" should have been the other warning signs for Challengers, but at the time they were hailed as signs that the New Pornographers had developed their sound - we still had enough high-quality rock numbers to balance them out.

Bill (who, again, I'm in debt to) quoted this paragraph from Carl (A.C.) Newman's interview with B-fork a few months back, but I'm going to quote it for an entirely different purpose:
It definitely sounds like something that, when it's quiet, I think it's much quieter than it ever has been, to the point that there are actually songs that don't really have any drums. Or, a song that has no drums for the first half, but then the drums come in, and even then they don't come in that much. There's a little more instrumentation than we've really tried having before. We brought in a string quartet, and there's actually flute on it, there's going to be a little bit of trumpet. I feel like I kind of shied away from that in the past, but I thought, why not try it now? There was a long stretch there where I thought there were too many bands with strings and horns and flutes. Then I thought, I like those instruments, so I brought them in. Not that there's going to be that much of it on the record, per se, but you know, just wanted to add a few more colors to the palette.
"Why not try it now?" is really just a cop-out for, "Well, I didn't want to try to sound like The Arcade Fire when it was all the rage, but I think it's safe to try it now." Is he trying to conform? As it turns out, in the same interview, Newman calls Mass Romantic "a strange, garage-y, really dense record" like it's a bad thing, and says of the New Pornographers "I don't think I ever really wanted us to be a pop punk band; I never even really wanted us to be a power pop band. If we're any kind of power band, I kind of want it to be a power folk band." Why this didn't bother me when I read it a few months ago is a bit of a mystery, I think I was still just excited that there was going to be a new album at all.

Back to the point - let me just point out a few things real quickly: being a power folk band doesn't mean cutting down on the drums! If anything, The New Pornographers have moved from being a rock or power pop band to being a orchestral pop sort of band! They can't be the Beatles! No one, no matter how hard they try, can be the Beatles. I don't even like the White Album. Challengers needed, say, at least two numbers that simply rocked and were 3 minutes long, and I think I could have gone for it. Exchange "Go Places" for something more like "Use It" and "Failsafe" for something more like "The Laws Have Changed" and the album would have been one of this year's best releases. Instead the album feels like the New Pornographers want to be some other band besides the New Pornographers, leaving a strange aftertaste in my mouth.

The one major consolation prize we have with this album is more Dan Bejar, which of course makes me incredibly happy (see post on "Myriad Harbour"). Subtle hooks and drawn-out climaxes are great when used in moderation, but when you're as great of a band as the New Pornographers, striking a balance is critical, and on Challengers, the band has failed to recognize that simple fact. I feel the need to add a disclaimer here: for most bands Challengers would be a masterpiece. For the New Pornographers it's a disappointment.

The New Pornographers - All the Things That Go To Make Heaven and Earth
The New Pornographers - Mutiny, I Promise You
The internet police came and told me to put the mp3s away. Sorry kids. Here's one you're allowed to have:
The New Pornographers - My Rights Versus Yours [alt link]

Buy Challengers from Insound
the New Pornographers' Website/Myspace

More proof (thanks to the Music Slut) with "My Rights Versus Yours"

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4 Responses to “A second review attempt: Challengers”

  1. # Anonymous nlm0.0nlm

    Matador sent a CD instead of LP as I had requested. I have the three blank discs from the Buy Early Get Now thing but not the album itself. They're making it right though. Nothing negative here. I just wish I could hear it in its entirety in one sitting.  

  2. # Blogger Kate

    The album is good, but it feels like the NPs trying to be something they're not.  

  3. # Blogger Charles

    I agree completely, except I actually like "Go Places" quite a lot. To me, it's one of the soft-touch experiments that actually works.

    Still, this one was always going to be a let-down because they were never going to top "Bleeding Heart Show" but I couldn't quite force myself to believe it until I actually listened to the whole thing.  

  4. # Anonymous Mandy

    Yes! I was finding it hard to put into words why I was disappointed, but here it is.
    Hope you don't mind me linking to your post from my blog for some further explanation.  

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