On their fourth record, Challengers, The New Pornographers are all about dialing things back. That includes a fair amount of the exuberant energy that characterized their first three collections of ebullient, brilliantly-crafted pop music. In fact, Challengers is largely a muted, mellow affair, more ornate and orchestrated than its predecessors, but also far more rooted in emotion than in the simple, knee-jerk thrill of a killer chord change or soaring chorus.
But none of this is to say that Challengers isn't an excellent record. It is, in spades. On tracks like "My Rights Versus Yours" (previewed here back in June), "All The Old Showstoppers" and "Unguarded", head Pornographer Carl Newman continues to display his quirky mastery of the classic pop form, now and then employing his fine falsetto to terrific effect. And as never before, the contributions from second songwriter Dan Bejar, while steeped in his singular styles of wordplay and vocal phrasing, are every bit as accessible and catchy as Carl's songs -- in fact, his NYC travelogue "Myriad Harbor" features the most infectious, sing-along chorus on the record.
But of course, the Pornographers' not-so-secret weapon is the great Neko Case. Her harmonies elevate every song (especially Bejar's -- she truly is the Emmylou to his Gram) into special territory, providing the thread that gives the Pornographers some sort of signature "sound". And the two tracks on which she sings lead, the title track and "Go Places," are the absolute highlights of Challengers. The former, especially, is among the loveliest moments of Neko's career. It's Carl's tune, but once Neko wraps her exquisite voice around it, imbuing it with her unique brand of beautiful melancholy, she makes it completely her own. By the time she sings, "Whatever the mess you are, you're mine, okay?", I'm ready to run away with her (for about the 87th time).
And newest Pornographer Kathryn Calder (who also fronts the excellent Immaculate Machine) has an upfront, chill-bump moment of her own on the gorgeous, twice-repeated coda to "Adventures In Solitude". Any young female singer who can step up and impress in a band that also includes Neko has my immediate respect.
MP3: The New Pornographers - "All The Old Showstoppers" from Challengers