Canadian “supergroup” New Pornographers made two really good albums, and then made a great one, 2005’s Twin Cinema, where the unique aspects of their 47 (or so) members seemed to gel magically. Cinema‘s power-pop was oddly familiar and comfortable, but sounded like nothing else: Fleetwood Mac? The Cars? Whatever it was, each track on that album seemed to top the previous one for sheer joyfulness, erupting into blissful codas of “hey-las” in three-part harmony. Even the contributions of the shambolic Dan Bejar (who usually annoys me) seemed charming. It was my #2 album of the year, just behind good old M.I.A.
That’s why Challengers is such a disappointment. The unified perfection of Cinema seems to have spun out and disintegrated, like a hurricane moving over cold water. Opener “My Rights Versus Yours” is nice, but it’s a pale imitation of Cinema‘s “Bleeding Heart Show,” with a groove that never seems to get off the ground. Neko Case’s voice is still awe-inspiring, and on the title track, there are glimpses of her greatness, but the song’s awkward phrasing seems to strangle her. Bejar gets track 4, “Myriad Harbor,” and it’s a terrible Pixies rip-off. Next. Relief comes on track 7, “Unguided,” with bandleader A.C. Newman on vocals, but it still sounds like a Cinema track played at half-speed, and at 6:33, it’s three minutes too long.
Okay, I’m looking like a negative jerk, let’s find something good to say. Track 9, “Go Places,” again lead by Case, has a swaying bar-room charm reminiscent of the Pogues, and track 11, “Adventures in Solitude,” starts as a lovely, quiet ballad, with a delicate refrain of “we thought we lost you,” although its rocking climax never really rocks.
A quick look around the intertubes shows there’s people who think Bejar is the best part of the band, and people who think this is their best album. The NPs definitely reward multiple listenings, so perhaps further attention will uncover Challengers‘ appeal. But right now, I’m not feeling it.