Monday, November 3, 2014

The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers

The New Pornographers are often referred to as a supergroup, but that’s pretty generous. Sure, Neko Case has a tidy solo career going, and Dan Bejar is very important in Pitchfork-verse. But who outside of Canada has heard of Zumpano, Limblifter or Maow, some of the bands the Pornographers were in previously? And how many have heard of Carl Newman and Kurt Dahle, or John Collins or Blaine Thurier?

There’s little that’s path-breaking about the Pornographers’ sound. Unlike, say, Arcade Fire, they’re perfectly happy to craft their perfect pop songs, album after album. I use the term “pop” not as a description of their sound – they’re unequivocally a rock ‘n roll band – but because the best Pornographers tracks convey the same sense of joy and wit that early Beatles and Motown singles did.   

The title of their sixth studio album, Brill Bruisers, is a reference to the New York building where songwriters like Goffin-King and Liber-Stoller wrote hits in the early ‘60s. It’s a fitting analogy: the New Pornographers construct their music as intricately any of those early pop hits. Lyrically, Brill Bruisers may be more upbeat than their last, 2012’s Together, but it wouldn’t be fair to say it represents any major change of approach. Put another way, if you already like their sound – bright, driving, crunchy pop-rock, like a wilder Fleetwood Mac – this is more of the same.

Fans of harmony – a particular strength of the Pornographers – will have much to delight in here. Many of the songs employ two-part leads and three- or four-part backing harmonies: “Hi-Rise” is built out of interlocking vocals, while “Champions of Red Wine” has overlapping voices of the kind that R.E.M used to use. With Newman singing in a falsetto a lot of the time, it’s fun to try and figure out whether it’s him, Case or Calder adding “la-la-las” in the background. Dan Bejar takes the lead on “War on the East Coast” and “Spidyr”, and his low-key vocals and the nervy lyrics are a welcome change from the day-glo propulsion of the rest of the album.

Newman is the closest thing this group has to a guiding vision – he’s written 10 of the 13 songs on Brill Bruisers, and sung a majority of them too. Newman is just fine, but I could’ve done with a little more of Neko Case in full cry, one of the signal pleasures of modern rock. Still, this album is a strong addition to the Pornographers’ remarkable consistent discography. “You tell me where to be, I'll be there,” they all chorus on the closing track, “You tell me”. It’s this willingness to please, while sticking to their unique sound, that’s endeared this band to so many.

A truncated version of this piece was carried in The Sunday Guardian.  

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