REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/23/2007
Give a New Pornographers album a single, full listen, and you pretty much get the gist of the album. Like the best power pop, The New Pornographers’ have a knack of making insanely catchy and memorable songs with massive riffs.
The output of the individual band members, on the other hand, tends to fall under the ‘slow burner’ category of music. A.C. Newman’s solo album The Slow Wonder and Dan Bejar’s Destroyer albums will most likely take a few listens for a listener to digest all of their quirks.
That’s not to say that The New Pornographers’ albums don’t reward with repeated listens. Unfortunately, like The Replacements and Sugar, if your band specializes in power pop your album output is usually limited to two or three memorable albums. And the New Pornographers are on album number four with Challengers.
The safest route for The New Pornographers would have been to find a nice middle ground between Electric Version and Twin Cinema. But they play it smart by making an album that will definitely not be confused with any of their other ones. And if you like The New Pornographers for their instantly catchiness, brace yourself: Challengers is a slow burner.
If you have Newman’s solo album and a few Destroyer albums, you’ll have no problem knowing which songs are Newman’s and which songs are Bejar’s. The Newman songs, specifically “All the Old Showstoppers,” “Failsafe” and “Mutiny, I Promise You,” retain that maddenly catchiness of some of The New Pornographers’ best work. Bejar’s songs are quirkier, using more instrumentation -- not to mention Bejar’s distinctive, high-pitched voice. While Bejar only composes about a quarter of the album, he supplies the highlight of the album with “Myriad Harbor.”
The word “maturity” has been tossed around repeatedly by rock critics to describe this album. Usually, that is a polite way of saying the album either contains far fewer hooks and memorable moments than before and is slightly boring, but professional. Yes, the disc is as mature as any other Pornographers albums, but the main drawback is the lack of opportunity for Neko Case to showcase her amazing vocals. She supplies some wonderful background vocals on “All the Old Showstoppers” and “Mutiny, I Promise You,” but the title track and “Go Places” are the only song where she’s front and center, and both of those songs are musically not as interesting as other songs on the album.
After six listens, Challengers is still revealing itself. However, it does not attain those amazing layered vocal heights that helped make an album like Twin Cinema a classic. What Challengers provides is a way out of repetition for a band that easily could have slipped into it. If you’re a fan of the band, you’ll give the album the deserved turns it needs to settle in. If you’re just discovering the band, this is probably not the “go to” album that represents the band at its peak, but it's not half bad either.