The New Pornographers: Challengers (2007)

Returning for a second go-round with one of my favorite bands of the past 20 years.

Challengers, the New Pornographers' 4th album, seems to divide some fans, but it's the one I listen to the most. Sure, it may not have a song quite as stunning as "The Laws Have Changed" or "The Bleeding Heart Show" from the two preceding albums -- though I think Challengers stand-out "The Old Showstoppers" comes pretty damn close -- but it's also a more consistently enjoyable record. Chief songwriter Carl Newman bravely eschews power pop conventions, and while this is what makes the band's brand of skewed indie pop so fascinating, it can also come across as excessively complex, keeping some of the songs at arms' length. But Challengers simplifies things without losing the novel edge of the band's earlier albums.

Part of the record's appeal is the greater role for quieter, more tuneful ballads; gently gorgeous tunes like the title track, "Go Places," and "Adventures in Solitude" give more breathing room for Neko Case's hypnotic vocals. And while Case gets a lot of attention for obvious reasons, vocalist Kathryn Calder holds her own on the album ("Failsafe," which I think features Calder, is another laid back tune that, for all its quietly ingratiating simplicity, is simply breathtaking.)

Newman still squeezes in some of his tradmark off-kilter hooks, not just on "Showstoppers" but on opener "My Rights Versus Yours (with it's propulsive, "Good Vibrations" like closing percussion) and the rollicking "Mutiny, I Promise You." And while I'm much more a fan of Newman's tunes than those of bandmate Dan Bejar (stuck being a Harrison in a band with a Lennon/McCartney) (hey, have you checked out my Second Bananas mix?), his "Myriad Harbour" is one of the New Porns' most enduring numbers.

Here's a video for "Failsafe":
...and "Mutiny":
...and the title track:
And here's that amazing animated video for "Myriad Harbour":
Here's a live "Showstoppers":
...and "My Rights Versus Yours" live on Letterman:

Also -- I posted this playlist in my Twin Cinema write-up, but in case you missed it, here's my New Pornographers for Beginners mix: