It still baffles me that The New Pornographers are not an insanely popular and successful group. They have a dedicated cult following, a reputation for putting on a great live show, and they consistently receive great reviews from major publications for every release. They have a TON of songs that have been used in commercials, movies and other forms of media, and many of the members of the band lead successful musical careers outside of the group. Yet after five albums of consistently excellent power-pop, they remain conspicuously absent from both the radio and the Billboard charts. Even amongst the indie festival circuit, they are rarely anywhere close to the top billing. All of this is incredibly depressing, because the group’s sixth album Brill Bruisers has more energy in the first 30 seconds of the first song than most Pop bands have on a whole album – and it never lets up from there.
New Pornographers ringleader A.C. Newman initially referred to this new album in a press release as being a “celebration record”, and the upbeat tone here provides a nice contrast to his surprisingly somber 2012 solo effort Shut Down the Streets, which was equally inspired by the birth of his son and the death of his mother. In fact, much of the Pornographers recent output has been surprisingly dark. 2007’s Challengers was a mellower, more complex take on the band’s signature sound, and while 2010’s Together brought back some of the energy of their earlier albums, it still had a somewhat serious feel due to the addition of strings, and the cryptic lyrics. Since that last album, Neko Case has also released a fairly depressing, death-inspired solo album.
Since most people seem to ignore the fact that Dan Bejar (the third vocalist in the group) and his other band Destroyer put out a brilliant, lively pop music album in 2011, it’s likely that many fans will refer to Brill Bruisers as a “return to form” of sorts for the band, although nothing could be farther from the truth. Although the average tempo of their songs may have slowed down a bit over the years, the consistency of songwriting has never faltered in the slightest. In fact, their detour into balladry has been highly beneficial in many areas that the casual fan might not notice.
A lot of people don’t realize that The New Pornographers have six members, and three lead singers. The experimentation on the last few albums has helped the band to really utilize their full line up in a much more powerful, noticeable way, and Brill Bruisers is the strongest example of that to date. The backing vocals are incredibly bright and lush throughout, the guitars are heavier, and the strings from Together return, but they meld much more smoothly with the band’s sound this time around. One texture that feels entirely new to the band’s sound is electronics. There are significantly more keyboards than usual, including synthesizers and arpeggiators.
There are even some cool vocal samples on songs like “Champions Of Red Wine”, and an awesome old school vocoder on “Backstairs”, a standout track that paints a bittersweet picture of A.C. Newman’s early days struggling to make it as a rock star. Adding electronic arrangements to their already crowded sound was a risky move, but thankfully they are simplistic enough not to overpower the rest of the songs. The way that synthesizers are used on Brill Bruisers sounds like they are being played by a wide-eyed child experiencing the instrument for the first time, and I mean that in the best way possible.
“War On The East Coast”:
Lyrically, the album is ever-so-slightly more decipherable than the average New Pornographers album, with familiar themes like alcoholism and daydreaming appearing quite a bit. All singers’ voices are in peak condition, but as usual Case has the most standout moments. The past couple albums felt like she was being underused a tad, but here she appears in some capacity on most of the tracks. “Marching Orders” features her sounding younger and more energized than she has in years as she sings the rallying cry “They say we can’t make this stuff up/What else can we make?” over a mixture of arcade-game arpeggiators and chugging acoustic guitars. “Hi-Rise” employs a neat production and arrangement trick where Case and Newman’s voices transition seamlessly into one another’s as they sing over softly plucked strings. “Born With A Sound” features Black Mountain’s Amber Webber on lead vocals, marking the first time the band has used a guest vocalist on one of their albums.
It’s difficult – and somewhat pointless – to discuss what the best New Pornographers album is, but after a few listens, I would have to say that this new one ranks among the best. It’s hard to say exactly what makes the album so refreshing to listen to – it might be the lack of mellow songs (the quietest song on the album is only a minute and a half long), it might be the old school electronic noises, or it might just be that they haven’t put out an album in four years and I forgot how much of a fan I am of the band. The gap between albums has gotten longer each time, as members have gotten older and started families, and pretty much everyone seems to be busy with at least one other project in any given time. But unlike most supergroups, The New Pornographers continue to get better with age. And although it could be quite a while before we hear from them again, I’m sure the next album will be just as good if not better. At this point they have been so consistently excellent that it’s hard to imagine them ever putting out bad music.