New Pornographers return to form

Canadian powerhouse gets brilliant on 'Brill Bruisers'

In August, the New Pornographers released its sixth studio album, Brill Bruisers, which received a tasteful but intensive promotional push. When Carl (AC) Newman picks up the phone to talk about it, he's in New York, enjoying some well-earned time at home, which has been scarce lately. "It was a crazy couple of weeks," Newman says. "Fly to L.A. Fly to Edmonton. Fly to Halifax. Go back to New York and do 'Letterman.' Do the Brill Building show," he adds, referring to the legendary New York City pop-song factory where the band performed for NPR in September. "We were doing a lot of things that involved a lot of traveling. But that's what you do when you put a record out."

Over the last 15 years the New Pornographers have functioned like a modern Brill Building (the songwriting and publishing one-stop shop that pumped out some of the planet's catchiest songs), ever since Newman assembled the group in Vancouver circa 1999. Bassist John Collins, guitarist Todd Fancey, ex-drummer Kurt Dahle, and keyboardists Kathryn Calder and Blaine Thurier lay the foundation for the band's wall of sound, while Neko Case and Destroyer's Dan Bejar regularly take turns at lead vocals. But the captain of the ship, the core songwriter and face of the band, is Newman, a soft-spoken Canadian with a preternatural gift for setting majestic melody and memorably odd turns of phrase to crunchy guitar rock.

The group's first three albums, beginning with 2000's Mass Romantic, followed by 2003's Electric Version and 2005's Twin Cinema, are near-perfect monuments to ebullient power pop. But 2007's Challengers signaled a downshift in pace and mood for the band. These qualities also carried over to 2010's Together, and Newman's third solo album, 2012's Shut Down the Streets, which centered on all phases of life, from birth to death. As Newman grappled with growing older, his music grew quieter and more personal.

Which is why Brill Bruisers, with its unabashed gleam and endless sea of bubbly synthesizers, is such a thrill. It's also a pleasant break from the stylistic shift of Challengers and Together, and a sign of the band's return to its rightful place on pop-rock's throne.

It's all of those things because Brill Bruisers is a return to the New Pornographers' early aughts form that arrives on the heels of a happier time for Newman. "When we started this record, my son was a little over one year old, so there was that sense that, 'Oh yeah, we seem to be doing this,'" Newman says. "It was springtime and he was walking, so we'd be working in the home studio and I'd see my wife and my little son walking around and I thought, 'OK, this is a good time.'"

Newman spent long hours in his home studio, poring over recordings and arranging them into what would become Brill Bruisers. The traditional rock band parts — guitars, bass, and drums — are simply the backbone of these songs. Newman and Collins layered on keys, synths, and vocals with an anything-goes mentality.

But Brill Bruisers packs more than digital luxuriance. The album's title track is a steadfast march through wordless vocal hooks. There's a "woo-ooh" or "bo-bah-bah-bo" around every corner. "Backstairs" sounds as though it was unearthed from the '70s, with its vocoded chorus and interlocking coda. "Dancehall Domine," "Fantasy Fools," and "You Tell Me Where" are the same kind of irresistible sonic sugar highs that dot the band's back catalog. And on "Champions of Red Wine" and "Marching Orders," Case's icy vocals float above fields of synth arpeggios that stretch to the horizon.

If it sounds like Newman and Collins spent a lot time playing with new toys, well, they did. To pile on sounds, they programmed keyboard parts on a computer and used iPhone and iPad apps and anything else that "sounded cool," Newman says.

"It felt like that was the unique area that the album could inhabit in the rock 'n' roll landscape: 'We are still a rock 'n' roll band, but we're using a lot of electronic elements,'" Newman says. "At the heart of it, when you listen to the New Pornographers without any of the other decorations on top, we're essentially the Ramones."

The Ramones' perfect blend of punk, pop, and rock 'n' roll confections slathered with soaring harmonies and sugary synths? Brilliant and bruising, indeed.

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