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The New Pornographers - Challengers

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Artist: The New Pornographers

Album: Challengers

Label: Matador

Review date: Aug. 10, 2007

The history of supergroups is a long one – and surprisingly devoid of illustrious moments. When pressed, most people will cite CSNY and Cream as high points, alongside crushing wastes of talent (Traveling Wilburys) and soulless grabs for market share (Asia, Zwan, ad infinitum). There are any number of theories about why star-studded ensembles fall short of expectations. Maybe there's a collaborative averaging effect that dumbs anyone's talent down in a group setting. Or perhaps people don't join supergroups unless they're past their peak or short on inspiration. Sometimes it's obviously a cynical ploy for press and record sales. In other cases, you wonder whether people are saving their best efforts for solo projects. In still others, it appears that everyone's just having a bad week. Who knows? Who cares?

The question comes up because the most recent New Pornographers' record is simply not as good as the solo work of its members, particularly Carl Newman, Daniel Bejar and Neko Case. It is perfectly pleasant, mildly intelligent pop, perhaps a cut above the vast majority of songs with "la la la" choruses. Yet it has none of the elegant non sequitur of Bejar's best work, nor the barbed hookiness of Newman's, nor even the sheer musical sensuality of Case on her own. It is kind of dull. It feels ultra safe. Bejar, for instance, doesn't say "fuck" even once in the whole record. (Though he does imply it, at least, in "Entering White Cecilia.”)

The record is full of polished surfaces, of just right instrumental touches and buoyantly in-tune choruses. There's nothing wrong here, nothing to stop the flow or catch you off guard. And this may very well be its downfall. The very lushness of its intercrossing vocals, the skill of its playing, may be what keeps you from connecting. Or perhaps -- scary thought -- the surfaces are all there is. If you could claw your way down past the shiny, shiny sounds, you'd fall right through to the nothing on the other side.

And yet the surfaces are insidiously appealing. At seven listens in, I find that I hear "Myriad Harbour" unbidden, while I'm driving around with the stereo off or chopping onions for dinner. (And it inevitably prompts the question, how can a harbor be myriad? Isn't it too big and unitary?) "Challengers," perhaps the disc's prettiest cut, sung by Case in her blurrily sweet alto, comes so close to becoming meaningful, its rising guitar chords evoking struggle, its words implying personal connection. But ultimately the record never closes the sale. Pretty songs, intricate but not-quite-revealing wordplay, and instrumental skill…it's not enough. There has to be something to care about.

Or maybe not. I've already talked to a handful of indie rock fans who think Challengers is just dandy, one of their favorite records, something they listen to by choice when they need a lift. Welcome to it, I say. I'm going back to Your Blues and The Tigers Have Spoken and The Slow Wonder the minute I get a chance.

By Jennifer Kelly

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