As a general rule, so-called “supergroups” are underwhelming at best. So often less than the sum of their parts, side projects suffer from the expectations placed upon them–and rightly so, because when you get a bunch of famous, creative musicians in a room together, why shouldn’t it be all magic, all the time? When Canadian indie outfit The New Pornographers roared out of nowhere in 2000 with their stellar debut album Mass Romantic, many proponents pointed out that the group had certainly found a way to harness their individual raw talents and channel it into a laser-focused LP. When they did it again in 2003, and arguably even better, with Electric Version, it became clear that The New Porno’s success was no fluke. Now, a staggering fourteen years after their inception, The New Pornographers have returned with Brill Bruisers, their fantastic sixth studio LP, signaling a return to form for a band that is so often greater than the sum of its parts.
That last statement is not at all intended to disparage those individual parts, by the way; the New Pornos are often labeled a supergroup for a reason. Carl Newman, Neko Case, Kathryn Calder, and Dan Bejar, who all share frontman duties, have found success in the indie sphere as solo artists; in the last few years, Newman, Case, and Bejar, who records as Destroyer, all released albums to critical and commercial success. While their individual releases are generally more introspective (and navel-gazing, in Bejar’s case), New Pornographers outings are clearly a way for them to let loose and indulge their biggest, power-poppiest tendencies. After reaching a high point with 2005’s Twin Cinema, my personal nomination for most under-appreciated album of the decade, subsequent efforts lost their focus and slid into a muted, gentler mode. While this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, Challengers (2007) and Together (2010) suffered mainly from a loss of momentum, as beautiful but sluggish ballads bled into each other.
In the press release announcing the new album, Newman (who writes the bulk of the music for the band) said “This is a celebration record. After periods of difficulty, I am at a place where nothing in my life is dragging me down and the music reflects that.” True to his word, “celebration record” is the perfect way to describe Brill Bruisers. Named for New York City’s famous Brill Building, a music industry epicenter in mid-twentieth century America, the LP is a joyous explosion of spiraling synthesizers, chugging guitar, layered, complex vocals, and more heart-swelling major chords than you could shake a stick at. From the opening urgency of the title track, which swarms around the listener’s head with overwhelming exuberance and an explosion of “bah-bah” backing voices (seriously: put in some nice headphones and crank the volume), to the driving crescendo of “You Tell Me Where,” the album recaptures the lost fun of earlier NP albums.
On Twitter, Newman has been candid about the creation of the new album, particularly ascribing “a massive amount of credit to [bassist] John Collins…the quiet secret weapon of [the] band from the beginning.” Collins, who has been at least partially credited as producer on every Pornographers album, applies his deft touch here, often pushing the vocals and drums to the front of the mix, an interesting choice that pays off. The result is a clear, pure sounding album that crackles with energy at every turn. Brill Bruisers is the direct antithesis of a lo-fi album. Newman may insist that Collins is their secret weapon, but truthfully, many of the players in the Porno’s lineup could match that descriptor. For example, take Blaine Thurier, resident synth player and sometimes filmographer, who has been elevated to much greater prominence than ever before. Every track on the album is conspicuously accented with the bleep-bloops of twinkling, retro keyboards, giving the record a warm, organic pulse. Kurt Dahle’s propulsive, frenetic drumming is once again the backbone of the band, and while he’s never permitted to let loose as freely as on, say, “The Bleeding Heart Show,” his inventive drum work ties each song together.
Elsewhere, resident chanteuse Neko Case turns in a typically exceptional performance. Her clear, recognizable voice sounds sweeter than ever, and she immediately elevates every song she touches, particularly carrying the lush kaleidoscope of “Champions Of Red Wine” into the upper echelon of NP tracks. Kathryn Calder, who originally joined up as Case’s replacement when her solo career precluded touring with the band, has fully grown into her own, lending her winsome vocals to the slight pop nugget “Another Drug Deal of the Heart” as well as the rambunctious late-album gem “Dancehall Domine.” Dan Bejar, turning in his requisite three tracks per album, hasn’t produced a trio this solid in almost a decade, particularly the deceptively simple “Spyder,” which starts as a hushed synth ballad before erupting into a thundering coda. Last but not least, Carl Newman flexes his songwriting chops as well as offering up his typically cryptic turns of phrase; on vocoded treat “Backstairs,” Newman croons in his signature half-lisp:
“Before I knew to choose the music of celebrity
I sang backups on the backstairs
I wore out grooves sneaking around the servants’ quarters, so
So I knew my way around the backstairs”
What does it mean? Who knows, but true to form, it’s fun to sing and catchy as hell.
Again, though, the real strength of the New Pornographers lies not in the individual musicians, but in how well they have meshed with each other. In an in-studio interview (see below), Newman admitted “I think this record is closer or closest to what I always wanted us to be, where it doesn’t really matter who’s singing…the voices melded together much more seamlessly than ever before.” It’s in this aside that the extra layer of cleverness in the album title is revealed: the “Brill Building Sound” became well-known following the first wave of American rock music, where songs were written in-house and meted out to singers. In this way, musicians could be swapped out because the artists themselves became much less central to the music. In the same vein, the musicians of the New Pornographers are much less concerned with a song being a “Carl song” or a “Neko song”–its just a “Pornographers song,” and the distinction makes the seams much less visible than ever before. At this point, The New Pornographers are certainly a super group (sorry!) but are barely a “supergroup,” per se. Instead, they’re a collection of inordinately talented musicians that have finally rediscovered their confident, singular voice. Here’s hoping the band doesn’t lose sight of it in the future.
Brill Bruisers – The New Pornographers is available now digitally, and in paint-splattered vinyl(!) at your local record store and on the band’s website.