The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
There may not be a more aptly titled record this year. The New Pornographers, a supergroup that, let’s face it, more people probably know than the solo projects of its members, have always trafficked in contemporary renditions of classic pop. But with a title that doubles as a winking threat to the Brill Building, the New York hub of acclaimed ’50s and ’60s songwriters, Brill Bruisers announces itself Pornographers’ most conscious attempt at shirking the retro dressings they’ve played with in the past, even if many of the 13 songs here still begin-middle-and-end with the economy and structure of AM radio. This is still music that’s written then produced, bucking the modern trend that seems to favor the opposite. And make no mistake, this is an expansively produced album—recorded in multiple studios, full of overlapping vocals, splashes of keyboard arpeggios, horns, harmonicas and dissonance. In a world that champions records as huge, diverse and world-beating as Arcade Fire’s Reflektor and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it might sound downright quaint, but this is easily the Pornographers’ most contemporary and slick album to date. It also may be their most fun. (Coming after the relatively subdued Together, such a technicolor album is welcome.)
From the moment the title track crashes in with its overdriven guitar and candy-coated chants, bandleader A.C. Newman sets his sights on the rafters, and the rest of the record follows suit. “Dancehall Domine” and “Fantasy Fools” bubble with keyboard sequences before erupting in a fit of bubblegum harmonies; “Backstairs” and “Champions Of Red Wine” take some spacier detours, while “Hi-Rise” and “Wide Eyes” recall Wincing The Night Away-era Shins, and the tinny instrumentation on “Another Drug Deal Of The Heart” makes it feel like a discarded track off of Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. Though, as is par for the course for the Pornographers, the lyrics are only fitfully coherent, enough images of weaponry, unrest and violence are scattered about to give this record a uneasy feel that belies the hooks, harmonies and melodies they couch themselves in. That’s nowhere more clear than on Dan Bejar’s “War On The East Coast.” Freed from the late-night lounge of Destroyer’s Kaputt, Bejar creates a sublimely exciting piece of pop, propelling through a vaguely sci-fi/new-wave verse into a glorious hook and back again. Still, for an album as rock-solid and smartly produced as this, and even with the wartime imagery, it also doesn’t have the potency of the New Pornographers’ best music. There’s real craftsmanship to the songwriting here, much like the Spectors and Bacharachs of the Brill Building, but while it will sound great blasting in a car or at a summer party, there’s too little depth here, and it too often winds up leaves the listener cold. Put another way, it’s a record full of good, very catchy songs, yet it’s something that mostly inspires admiration instead of devotion. As apt as the album’s title may be, it’s ultimately ironic: Brill Bruisers doesn’t leave much of a mark.