Monday, August 25, 2014

"Brill Bruisers" is the best New Pornographers album in nearly a decade

You'd be hard pressed to find another three-album stretch in the last 15 years that's as good as The New Pornographers' first trio of records.  From the power-pop confection of Mass Romantic, to the no-nonsense hook factory of Electric Version, to the widescreen tunes of Twin Cinema, the band was on a blazing streak of delivering songs as technically proficient as they were catchy.  After a run like that, it's only natural that anything after would seem like a minor disappointment.  Though it has its acolytes, 2007's Fleetwood Mac-influenced Challengers wasn't met with the amount of fervor that their previous albums had.  That album -- along with its follow-up, Together -- might not be as impressive, but they represent a tapped-brakes period that might have been necessary for the bad after their first three releases.

If that's the case, then consider their new album Brill Bruisers a return to form.  The whole record has a punchy, driving nature that the band's previous two -- despite their own pleasures -- just didn't contain.  Each song feels like those trick canisters that open up and release a bunch of fake snakes in every direction.  The New Pornographers have always been ruthlessly efficient, channeling their energy into four-minute pop gems, but "Another Drug Deal of the Heart" manages to be just as catchy and indelible in half the time.  "Backstairs" is the most fun song on the record, but it's also the best, featuring verses from AC Newman that work like a boxer feinting high, only for the Neko Case chorus to sweep the legs and knock you over.  Elsewhere, "Fantasy Fools" keeps things simple, barreling through with the forward momentum of a bullet train.

The cover art for the album, with its austere white background and simple black lettering offset by the neon rainbow lights layered over them, is both visually striking and representative of each track's mission statement.  The songs themselves, as always, follow a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, but the band lays flourishes on top that make them vital and invigorating.  Brill Bruisers mostly accomplishes this through the use of keyboards.  It's not exactly a new instrument in their repertoire -- in fact, they've been using them since Mass Romantic -- but they've never been consistently featured so prominently before.  Here, they saw through the melodies and settle front-and-center.  And they vary their sound through the album -- bubbly and effervescent on "Champions of Red Wine," twinkly and insistent on "Another Drug Deal of the Heart," then spacey and yawning on "Spidyr."

The term "supergroup" gets lobbed around whenever the band gets written about, but they're not exactly a supergroup in a Traveling Wilburys sense.  When the band formed in 1999, many of the members had their own ventures -- AC Newman was in Zumpano, Dan Bejar performed under the name Destroyer, Neko Case had a solo album -- but none of them were blockbuster names.  No, The New Pornographers are a supergroup because each of their albums feel like the joining of musicians who each have their own specific skill sets that mesh together like Voltron.  It's well known that Bejar is one of the band's greatest weapons.  He always shows up for three songs on every album, and his contributions feel like a change of pace without being completely out of place.  "Spidyr" is his peak on Brill Bruisers.  It's a minor epic -- compact in length, but sonically sprawling.  But the band's best kept secret continues to be drummer Kurt Dahle, whose pounding drums hold up every song on the album.  You can feel every thwack and bang like they're resonating in an empty auditorium.

The album offers quick moments to catch your breath -- the string-plucked "Hi-Rise," the open and expansive "Wide Eyes" -- but it's generally a wild ride.  It's the kind of album that can fit in such an array of odd little musical choices -- a harmonica solo that bursts out in the middle of "Spidyr," a skronky breakdown in "Dancehall Domine," a Daft Punk-esque vocoder intro to "Backstairs" -- and make them completely work.  While it may not be at the level of something like Twin Cinema, it comes shockingly close.  The band once wrote an ode to comeback kids, and now with Brill Bruisers, they've managed to achieve a resurrection of their own.

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