Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2007, Part 13 (New Pornographers, The – Noisettes, The)

with 3 comments

The New Pornographers – Challengers

Some bands evolve in massive jumps from release to release, and some establish a slower pace, in which each album yields small, but significant innovations hinted at on the previous album. The New Pornographers are clearly in the second camp, and the ornate Challengers is exactly the album one might expect them to make after Twin Cinema, which found the band experimenting with ballads and orchestration beyond guitars, bass, drums, and keys (which, in turn, picked up from the A.C. Newman solo album, The Slow Wonder). Luckily, the fact that this turn toward the grandiose might have been somewhat predictable doesn’t diminish the album, itself.

As with each of the band’s albums to date, Challengers is packed with one-off moments strung seamlessly together into great songs. A lot of pop bands stop when they come up with a catchy chorus, verse, and bridge. The best don’t stop there, but find new ways of organizing them, throwing in new parts, tweaking each occurrence of each part so that none come across as exactly the same. Carl Newman has this process down, and perhaps the best examples are in his arrangements of Dan Bejar’s contributions to the band. “Myriad Harbour” would certainly sound fine in the context of Bejar’s other band, Destroyer, but you can hear the Newman touch throughout the version on Challengers, as he constructs a solid, steady base to complement Bejar’s looser-than-loose sung monologue about bumming around New York City, then pads it out with massed vocals that synch up perfectly. Bejar’s two other excellent contributions on Challengers are similarly tricked out in ways the artsier Bejar would probably scoff at for his own Destroyer purposes – “Entering White Cecilia” is given extra punch by Kurt Dahle’s Bonham-esque heavy-loose shuffle, and “The Spirit of Giving” gets an appropriately big orchestra and choral finale.

Meanwhile, Newman’s own songwriting has broadened to encompass tender ballads like “Challengers,” which may have some of the most direct straight-up love song-y lyrics that Newman’s ever written (“Whatever the mess you are, you’re mine, okay”) and a slow-build epic like “Unguided,” which climbs to a peak and pulls out the rug to feature a few quiet, sweetly sung lines by Kathryn Calder before blasting to the end. Calder comes into her own on this album, as well. No longer just the “other” female vocalist in the band, she practically steals the show on “Adventures in Solitude,” a duet with Newman and maybe the prettiest song in their catalog.

In fact, it’s this new focus on the slow and subtle that sheds some unfortunate light on the two tracks that sound like they could have fit on the band’s first couple albums. “Mutiny, I Promise You” and “All The Things That Go To Make Heaven and Earth” sound like phoned-in concessions to the fanbase who got on board for the upbeat stuff only. They’re not bad, but we’ve heard them before (especially “All The Things…” which sounds like a direct ripoff of the superior “It’s Only Divine Right”). If they had to mess with the general vibe, it might have served them better to include one of their more unusual experiments like Twin Cinema‘s off-time stomper “The Jessica Numbers.” Still, that’s the worst I can say about Challengers. As usual, the New Pornographers deliver.

Nine-Inch Nails – Year Zero

Look, I’ve already wasted some of my time listening to this. Do I really need to waste more of my time and some of your time, too? Probably not. But here are a few thoughts. You may not have heard a single track from this album, but you essentially know what it sounds like. Circa The Downward Spiral, it was easy to overlook how weak the songwriting was because Trent Reznor was making with the then-interesting production work. Years later, he hasn’t innovated at all from a textural standpoint, and the songwriting is probably even worse. The big change on Year Zero is that he doesn’t sound like a self-obsessed 15-year-old detailing his tragic life, but like a self-obsessed 15-year-old who just discovered dystopian literature (oh, who am I kidding? – dystopian movies. There’s no way this guy reads books).

The Noisettes – What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf?

All the parts seem to be firing on What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf?, but the combination still manages to be less than compelling. Shingai Shoniwa has a nice, flexible voice that can handle the light jazzy groove on “The Count of Monte Christo” and can do an impressive, brassy Johnette Napolitano on “Scratch Your Name” and “Bridge to Canada.” The problem is that the music never stays in one place long enough to register. These are clearly excellent musicians, but they shift gears so often (jagged swingy post-punk into delicate swing into grungy riffing and so on) that they never establish much of a style beyond being Shoniwa’s backup band (well, technically, she plays bass, too, I suppose she’s part of her own backup band). I wouldn’t count the band out, but the album’s skippable.

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Written by Dave

December 29, 2007 at 3:54 pm

3 Responses

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  1. I feel bad about no comments on this one, I just have never listened to the New Pornographers.

    Patrick Ripoll

    December 31, 2007 at 2:54 pm

  2. Loving the Music Marathon and thought it was time to say thanks. Since Patrick had no comments =), I’ll add that I’ve wondered at times whether Reznor has failed to live up to the promise of Downward Spiral and Pretty Hate Machine, or whether NIN was really never that deep to begin with but just sounded appropriate in my angsty 20s (in the not-coincidentally angsty early 90s)?

    I haven’t found time to bother with Year Zero, but going back to songs like “Only” and “The Hand That Feeds” have led me to believe that his strengths are actually closer to pop melody than he is apparently willing to acknowledge. Going all the way back to “Head Like A Hole,” I think all Reznor needs to do to turn out a good album is to give in to the pop side and make his own “Mechanical Animals.”

    BrianM

    January 13, 2008 at 1:20 am

  3. Oh, I don’t think Reznor’s ever been deep. But he displayed a superb grasp of texture on The Downward Spiral, and it still impresses as a piece that bridges the gap between more aggro industrial acts of the time and pop/dance-oriented music with the occasional melody.

    The Downward Spiral and Broken have both aged pretty well in terms of channeling rage into OCD levels of production tidiness. Pretty Hate Machine, unfortunately, has aged very poorly. The overwrought lyrics are crystal clear over a bed of synth tracks that sound like they were made on a cheap Casio.

    I’m not sure what the key would be for Reznor at this point. Ennui never sounds as convincing coming from wealthy, aging rock stars, so maybe you’re right about the pop route being the way to go. The thing is his newer work seems even less melodic, so I suspect he’s somewhat unwilling or unable to do it.

    Always glad to see more people reading and commenting.

    Dave

    January 13, 2008 at 10:12 am


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