42 of 50 people found the following review helpful
Cale E. Reneau
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
It's probably best to get it out of the way, so here it goes: the New Pornographers will probably never be able to create an album as good or better than "Twin Cinema." When "Twin Cinema" released around two years ago, I had never heard of this "supergroup" or any of the members to whom the label is attributed. But when I picked up the album on the insistence of several reviews and a preview listen, I knew that this was a band that was perfect for me. The power pop music that on that album was near-flawless and it remains just as exciting and powerful today as it was in 2005. So no, "Challengers" is not better or as good as "Twin Cinema." But once you get over that fact, you'll find an album that is great in its own right and definitely worth owning.
It starts off with the first single, "My Rights Versus Yours." I have to be honest, when I first listened to the song a few months ago I was not a fan. The song lacked the powerful hooks and grandiose climaxes that "Twin Cinema" flaunted on pretty much every song. Of course, since then I've been able to appreciate the song for it's absolutely beautiful lyrics, and relentless drive. Carl Newman's delivery is flawless as he sings "We hang suspended from the heights until it's safer to walk here." The hook is a bit weak in my opinion("The truth in one free afternoon"), but it really doesn't distract from this great song. "All the Old Showstoppers" continues the fantastic songwriting from the first track. It really feels like a group effort, especially by the time the bridge rolls around.
It runs head-on into the title track, "Challengers." It's not only one of my favorite tracks on the album, but probably one of my favorites of 2007. Neko Case takes over the vocals here, and she once again nails it. Each line, each note is sung perfectly with Carl harmonizing gently in the background. Everything about the song is beautiful, from Neko's declaration that "We are the challengers of the unknown!" to simple "Nah nah nahs" on the bridge. The song succeeds in being moving and poignant without the help of a chorus or any sort of climax. In my opinion, the song is just like one big climax, it starts off strong and never falters. Without a doubt, it is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever had the pleasure of listening to.
Dan Bejar's next up with his almost humorous, "Myriad Harbor." As he nonchalantly notes, "I took a plane, I took a train..." the rest of the band cuts him off with "Ah! Who cares? You always end up in the city!" By the time they're all singing "Look out upon the Myriad Harbor," chances are you're singing along right with them. The steady drumming and infectious guitars are complimented by some string instruments here, and it sounds awesome. Speaking of things sounding awesome, "All of the Things that Go to Make Heaven and Earth" is one of the few times on the album that The New Pornographers revert back to their wilder days. This up tempo power pop opus is quite an accomplishment, even for this band! The song sounds like it could've fit perfectly on Carl Newman's solo album, "The Slow Wonder," but the background vocals clearly make it a good fit here too.
The energy built up by that song is almost immediately brought to a halt by "Failsafe" in which Kathryn Calder finally makes her debut on a Pornographers record. Unfortunately, the song is pretty unmemorable. Her vocals aren't really the problem, as they're near-Neko quality and impressive. But the melody and the music surrounding it are misguided at best. I can't help but think that the song made the final cut simply because of Calder's notable presence. "Unguided" is also a song that seems out of place. At 6 1/2 minutes, it progresses slowly and really never pays off the way one would expect it to. There is definitely something at work here, especially when Neko Case finds her way into the song, but it still seems like it's missing something. In the end, it's lyrics are its only saving grace and it's worth listening to if only for that.
"Entering White Cecilia" is another song that is fronted by Bejar, but it sounds more like his main project, Destroyer, than The New Pornographers. Anyone who is familiar with Bejar's solo work knows that he loves to half-talk and rush a lot of his lines. In the context of Destroyer, it works well, but here it just sound like he's taking his fellow bandmates on a ride that they weren't totally down for. This is evidenced by the background vocalists awkwardly struggling to keep up with his erratic delivery. Even though the album takes a dip in quality for those three songs, the remainder of "Challengers" is great!
"Go Places" is a Case-fronted song in which she asserts "Yes, a heart will always stay one day too long, always hoping for the hot flashes to come." Again, she does a perfect job of delivering the vocals. The song climaxes at around the 2:30 mark, as Neko sings the chorus with passion and conviction. She continues to amaze me. "Mutiny, I Promise You" is an upbeat group effort whose woodwinds give it a very cool late-60s pop sound, at least for the song's introduction. In the chorus, the members ask "What's the weight of the world worth to ya'?" in traditional Pornographers form. It's a very cool song.
"Adventures In Solitude" is another Newman-fronted balled, whose beauty and poignancy rivals "Challengers." Newman's subdued singing of "We thought we lost you...welcome back," is countered beautifully in the bridge as the song picks up and Neko takes over the vocal duties. Violins are added here, and they once again integrate perfectly with the band. The album ends with "The Spirit of Giving," in which Bejar makes his third appearance on the album, singing "I'll give you something to be sad about. It's your turn to go down now!" The song features everything from a trumpet to an accordion, and it ends the album in an almost triumphant way. It leaves you feeling good about what you just listened to, and gives you a reason to listen to it all over again.
Perhaps my biggest complaint about "Challengers" is that many of the songs sound like they are not group efforts. In many cases it sounds like Neko wrote a few Neko Case Songs, Carl wrote a few A.C. Newman songs, and Dan wrote a few Destroyer songs and then everybody added background vocals, a little bit of drums, some guitars, and then called it a day. "Challengers" is nowhere near as cohesive, focused, or exciting as it's predecessors. At the same time, however, it is more creative and risky than any of the group's other three albums. Like I said, once you get over the fact that it's no "Twin Cinema," "Challengers" reveals itself for what it truly is; another great album from The New Pornographers and one of 2007's best!
1. "My Rights Versus Yours"
3. "Myriad Harbor"
4. "All of the Things that Go to Make Heaven and Earth"
5. "Adventures in Solitude"
7 out of 10 Stars
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
After 2005's brilliant Twin Cinema, New Pornographers leader Carl Newman made a conscious decision to do something a little different for the band's next trick. Consequently, Challengers pulls back a bit from the bombastic power-pop the group is known for. With the ranks of the band now swelled to eight members, the arrangements take center stage this time out. Well, the arrangements as well as the female vocals. Neko Case has been an integral member of the band since the beginning, providing a powerful voice on both lead and backing vocals. But with her solo career taking off, The New Pornographers had to recruit another woman to sing for them when Case wasn't available to tour. Enter Kathryn Calder on vocals and piano. Although she showed up here and there on Twin Cinema, she really comes into her own on Challengers.
The album kicks off with "My Rights Versus Yours," a mid-tempo song with an irresistible chorus. It starts off sparsely, with just Newman's voice, soft guitar, and a quiet keyboard. Gradually the rest of the band enters- backing vocals, bass guitar, a tambourine, drums. After 90 seconds the song is going full force and the first chorus kicks in. Then, a bridge, with the traditional duet vocals of Newman and Case. But by the end of the bridge, Calder is there, too, adding another layer to the harmony and staying there for the chorus. While the song never bursts out into the full rock you'd expect from earlier Pornographers songs, it's a perfect example of the careful, meticulous arrangements the album is filled with.
"All Old Showstoppers" rides a similar mid-tempo groove and has more of Case's backing vocals providing extra punch to Newman's lead. "Challengers" is next, and the first ballad of the album. Case takes the lead here, soulfully singing over Newman's quiet harmony and "o-la o-la o-la o-la" from Calder and the rest of the band. "Myriad Harbour" is Dan Bejar's first appearance on the album, providing his usual handful of songs. His angular songwriting and sort of yelpy singing voice always give the Pornographers some contrast. The lyrics here and on the album-closing "The Spirit of Giving" sound more like his main band Destroyer than usual, with awkward chatter from the Canadian about the American indie music scene. Still, the song itself is damn catchy, with great gang vocals on the chorus and a well-placed harmonica riff.
"All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth" is one of only two fast songs on the album, capturing more of the sound you'd usually expect from the band. Drummer Kurt Dahle gets to really open up his drums on this one, showing flashes of the creativity he displayed on Twin Cinema. Next up is the fantastic "Failsafe," as things slow back down. Calder takes the lead vocal on this one, although Case provides harmonies throughout the song, to the point where it's basically a duet. A jagged electric guitar echo permeates the song as well, giving the tune an interesting-sounding bedrock to build upon. "Unguided" has the feel of an epic journey- at 6 1/2 minutes, it's the album's longest song. Although the song is relaxed, it has a big, wide-open sound, driven by Dahle's drums and a huge chorus. Afterward, Bejar's bouncy "Entering White Cecilia" changes things up again, and just in time.
Then there's the mid-tempo "Go Places," which is another vocal treat. Case has the lead, but there's plenty of Calder here as well. Calder's piano playing, a catchy guitar line, and a string section drive the music, which is anchored by another beautiful chorus. "Mutiny, I Promise You" is the other up-tempo song on the album, and it's one of the highlights. A riff reminiscent of "Sing Me Spanish Techno" moves the song along to a Newman-Case duet, and yes, there's a great, hooky chorus on this one as well. "Adventures in Solitude" has probably the quietest moment on an album full of subdued moments. Slight instrumentatation by the band and later, a string section, accompanies a beautiful duet from Newman and Calder. Case comes in about halfway through the song with her own unique vocal melody, which drives through to the end of the song. A Bejar song closes out a Pornographers album for the first time with "The Spirit of Giving." This is one of those songs that just has that feeling of a closer. There's a nice wrap-up, closing goodbye sound. A musical interlude in the middle with French horn, trumpet, accordion, and strings goes well with the whole "arrangements are important" attitude that the rest of Challengers has.
Yeah, okay, this review was a little long. But there's so much good stuff inside a New Pornographers disc that it's worth talking about for a while. Yes, the rumors you have heard of this album being quieter than the band's other albums are true. No, that doesn't make this album bad or even a disappointment. I don't think it quite measures up to the awesomeness of Twin Cinema, but the songwriting is just as clever as always, with all the things that make the band great. And if you get a chance to see them on tour this fall, make sure you don't miss them, because Neko Case (finished promoting her excellent 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood) will be along for the whole thing. I can't wait to see some of these songs live with both ladies singing. 9.0/10