New Pornographers: Challengers

Mark Drop: Don't fear the Download.

So, my grip has begun to tear loose. I signed up for emusic.com – and have begun buying music by download instead of cruising the aisles of Amoeba Music or directing my mouse to half.com. I can see almost immediately that this means the death of the album. “Why buy all these other cuts? It’s that one cool chucka-chucka song I dig.”


I’m fighting off being depressed about it. And, thankfully, one of my first full-length purchases from emusic is helping the fight. Quite a lot, actually. The 12 individual files that make up
Challengers (Matador), the latest from Vancouver “alt-super-group” The New Pornographers, demand to be listened to from start to finish, in sequence, just like an album of yesteryear. Over and over and over again. This record is a minor pop masterpiece. I have only had minor exposure to the earlier work of this band – quirky, riotous, cacophonous stuff -- but I am a huge fan of Bowie-obsessed band member Dan Bejar’s other outlet, Destroyer, so this record called out to me. This is by far the best thing any of these people have done, together or separately. It is so full of ideas that it reminds me of a novel. This music tries to get things across. It tries to touch. It yearns to communicate. And it does all this with every component available – lyrics, voices, music. Every detail is purposeful and brilliant. Backing vocals split into delicate, unique harmonies. You can hear fingers on guitar strings, the human breath crossing a flute. As the songs become more familiar, bits of lyric rise out of the lush, human sound and play games inside your head, bouncing around, causing connections. They’re funny words, or startling, or very sad. And they add up to big emotions. The touchstones here are Bowie, of course, and Brian Wilson, big time. But there’s so much more. It’s Beatles through bass lines and backing vocals. Roxy Music ripples through. I hear shades of The Smiths in the tremolo driven guitar of "Failsafe". I heard Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson in the heartbreaking beauty of "Go Places" – a straight ahead love song that could have appeared on one of those lush English folk/pop albums of the sixties. Three vocalists share the spotlight equally -- Bejar, A.C. Newman and Katherine Calder – and each is a unique artist with a fresh voice and a strong point of view. These people have obviously put an incredible amount of thought, work, sweat and blood into making Challengers, a complex, joyous ride that engages the brain as strongly as it moves the body and tugs at the heart. I guess I’m gonna be okay.

Mark Drop writes for television in Los Angeles. In lieu of playing his own music he now spends too much time and money listening to, and thinking about, the music of others. He believes that music might be the only truly good thing human beings do.

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