A few years back, I was standing in a dark and dingy night spot, somewhere in the vicinity of Wrigley Field, angrily sipping an overpriced triple vodka on the rocks, very pissed off that they’d banned indoor smoking in Chicago, the birthplace of those smoke-filled rooms that gave birth to several of our nation’s leaders.
Fucking Americans have no sense of tradition!
The reason for my visit to the nanny state of Illinois was to attend a boring training seminar that my boss had been pushing on me for some time. The prospect of five days of entrapment in a lifeless hotel conference room full of drones mouthing platitudes and talking about things no one with an active brain could possibly give a shit about didn’t exactly tickle my fancy, so I kept putting it off. He brought it up again in one of our completely useless weekly conversations called “one-on-ones” and I promised him I’d look into it first thing.
Okay, so it turned out to be the sixth thing, but I did look into it. I saw that the next available date for the conference involved a trip to Chicago, so I immediately checked out who was playing in Chicago that week to see if it was worth the trip.
The New Pornographers! Windy City, here I come!
I already had the first three albums from these occasional collaborators, and I’d just bought a copy of their latest, Challengers. I admired A. C. Newman for his exceptional melodic talent, Neko Case for her strong, liquid voice and the rhythm section of John Collins and Kurt Dahle for their powerful rhythmic support. Each of their first three albums had featured at least one of the best melodic rock songs I’d ever heard: “Letters from an Occupant,” “Mass Romantic” and “The Laws Have Changed.” I knew that since they were based in Vancouver I didn’t have to travel that far to see them, but I’d never been to Chicago and my employer was going to send me on their dime. This was a no-brainer, even for a blonde!
As it turned out, the show wasn’t until Thursday night, so by the time I arrived at the club I was seriously drained from four long days spent with really boring people talking in buzzwords I didn’t want to understand, making lame inside jokes about shit that didn’t matter. I knew they were bullshit, they knew they were bullshit, but that shared knowledge did not motivate them to drop the façade and get real for a single moment.
So, I arrived at the club with the sour afterburn of pointless networking in my brain and found out there was nowhere to sit, so I started searching for a to find a place to stand where my relatively limited height gave me a chance of actually seeing the band. I can’t give up my spot to go outside and have a cigarette, so I have to stand through a noisy, interminable set from the shitty warmup band, during which I have to tell a dozen guys who stop to admire my tits to fuck off. I have to nurse my vodka because I can’t go to the bar to get a refill and I’ll be damned if I’m going to ask one of these creepy loser guys to buy me a drink because he’ll probably think that small favor will earn him a shot at my pussy and there’s no fucking way that’s going to happen, and goddammit, The New Pornographers had better be fucking great tonight!
When they finally hit the stage, it didn’t look good. Wearing a cheap, faded white top with her hair pinned back with plastic K-mart hair clips, Neko Case looked like she’d just gotten off her day job cleaning toilets and didn’t have time to change. The other band members seemed shy, awkward and devoid of energy. I took a deep breath to try to prevent my soul from sinking into the depths of despair.
Then, wham! Opening with “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth,” a song that requires every single person to be on point from the get-go, The New Pornographers made every little molecule of bad energy vanish in about twenty seconds. Neko and Kathryn Calder hit their harmonic spots perfectly on the third line and from that moment forward I was completely enthralled by the incredible sound and energy coming from that stage. It turned out to be the best show I would see that year, compensating in full for the pain I had to endure to see it.
New Pornographers fans seemed to resist Challengers at first. This happens any time a band seeks to expand its field of operations. Challengers seemed relatively subdued in comparison to Twin Cinema, their previous album, a pretty impressive piece of work itself. Comparing the two now with the benefit of longer perspective, it’s pretty clear to me that Challengers is not only superior to Twin Cinema, but it’s also the best album they ever made: a rich, melodic and exciting album with thematic unity.
Twin Cinema opens with a wild guitar riff; Challengers opens in relative stillness: single strummed chords from a mandolin, French horn echoing the theme and A. C. Newman gently carrying the melody of “My Rights Versus Yours.” The women enter at the end of the verse with sweet and gentle oohs that are spot on. Percussion and bass arrive in the second verse, and the song doesn’t kick into a higher gear until the end of that verse. From there it’s a glorious mix of melody and harmony with strong support from the rhythm section; the song flows so easily and naturally that you wish it would go on forever. An unusual opening indeed, but an exceptionally beautiful one.
The remarkable “All the Old Showstoppers” also begins in relative quiet, with crunchy guitar turned down low, a short piano pattern and a restrained lead vocal from A. C. with a touch of harmony over the bouncy rhythmic pattern that will eventually dominate the song. This quiet ends suddenly in a drum-pounding orchestral burst then returns to that bouncy, lilting, infectious rhythm. The fills and touches in this song are marvelous: a perfect guitar fill here, perfect background vocals there, and always the fabulous bass and drum combination of Collins and Dahle. I’ve read descriptions of A. C. Newman’s lyrics as “Dada-esque,” meaning they usually make little apparent sense. While that is certainly true in “All the Old Showstoppers,” somehow you can’t help singing this song and its mysterious lyrics with real feeling. A. C. Newman not only has a gift for melody, but he is also extraordinarily sensitive to the melody of the words themselves; many of his lyrical choices seem to be based on how they sound in the context of the music rather than what they might or might not mean. Since McCartney did just that with the line “The movement you need is on your shoulders” in “Hey, Jude,” we can say definitively that this atypical approach to lyrics is supported by precedent.
“Challengers” comes next, giving Neko Case a chance to show her stuff on a more reflective piece than the power pop tunes she’d been assigned previously. A lovely song with the usual gorgeous harmonies and soft mandolin supporting a restrained but strong lead vocal, it’s more than worthy of its position as the title track of the album.
Next is one of Dan Bejar’s songs, “Myriad Harbour.” Although this qualifies as one of his better efforts, the truth is that there are certain voices I cannot abide and Dan Bejar’s is one of them (along with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Ozzy Osbourne). Luckily for me, “Myriad Harbour” is followed by the aforementioned “All the Things that Go to Make Heaven and Earth,” providing ample assurance to those fans that The New Pornographers could still rock with the best of them.
Kathryn Calder gets a rare shot at a lead vocal in “Failsafe,” supported by Neko Case’s harmonies. Her more breathy voice works exceptionally well on this very sexy song that relies more heavily on electronics than any other song on the album. Next up is “Unguided,” a pleasant little song, but one of the weaker tracks on the album, as is Dan Bejar’s “Entering White Cecilia.” That’s not the case with “Go Places,” another reflective Neko Case performance that’s one of my favorite songs on Challengers, featuring a line I could use as one of my mottoes, “Yes, the heart should always go one step too far.”
After two softer songs, the band kicks into high gear with the spirited, “Mutiny I Promised You,” colored by flute, a superb bass part and a driving, confident drum backing. This is another one of my favorites where the enigmatic lyrics work because of the way they enhance the flow of the music. It’s followed by the quieter “Adventures in Solitude,” a sweet song sung largely in two-part harmony marked by A. C. Newman oscillating between falsetto and his normal voice in the quiet passages; the strings are particularly lovely in this song, particularly during the whirling passage of complex harmonies towards the end of the song. This is the way my iTunes playlist for Challengers ends; in the real-world version, it ends with Dan Bejar’s “The Spirit of Giving,” a song I uncheck in iTunes for the reasons mentioned above. Sorry!
I hadn’t heard Challengers for quite a while before writing this review, and I have to say, it’s even better than I remembered it to be. A. C. Newman has such a way with melody and the feel of a song that I consider him one of the top songwriters today despite his curious lyrics. Few bands have ever done vocals as well as The New Pornographers, both in terms of arrangement and execution. I am always knocked out by that rhythm section, which is certainly the most underrated aspect of this remarkable group of musicians. Challengers is an exceptional album that will last for the ages.
If you’d like to get a quick idea of this band’s range, ability to kick ass and have a fabulous time doing so, watch their version of “Your Daddy Don’t Know” a hit song released by the band Toronto in 1982 (hence the 80s costuming). It’s a gas, gas, gas!