By definition, a supergroup, like Canada’s New Pornographers, should be fun. A supergroup is an opportunity for friends to get together and make music free from the same kind of expectations placed on their main projects. Yet, despite the pedigrees of Carl “AC” Newman, Dan Bejar (Destroyer), Neko Case, and the others who’ve contributed to the band’s last two albums (2007’s Challenger and 2010’s Together) this supergroup had begun to sound like a super drag. Ornateness had been mistaken for quality. Tempos lurched into mid-tempo hell. The band’s most recent effort, Brill Bruisers, is a lot of things: Fun, engaging, a return to form, a new direction, and most definitely not a drag.
The first notes of the title track, and those wonderful synths and keys swirling in the same neons as the album cover, effectively signals a a do-over for the band. The basic vocal and instrumental melodies may recall the spontaneity and ease of their peak period around 2003’s Electric Version, but the execution is a more contemporary interpretation of standard power pop.
On tracks like “Champions of Red Wine” and “Marching Orders,” where the electronic influences are even more pronounced, Neko Case sounds less like the underground hero, and more like a full-fledged pop diva. There’s an alternate universe where Case bigger than Miley and this is your proof.
Even on the Dan Bejar penned tracks, there’s an increased sense of purpose and directness. This is a man whose work with Destroyer is labeled pop, mostly because it isn’t loud. “War on the East Coast” has an actual chorus and an instrumental surge at the chorus. “War on the East Coast” is unabashed fun for both the band and the listener.
It’s only on “Backstairs” where The New Pornographer’s cut and past approach to power pop shows it’s limits. AC Newman is not Daft Punk. Dan Bejar is not Daft Punk. Only Daft Punk can get away with using a vocoder in 2014.
Let me put it another way. If I were to draw you the rocker’s pyramid in the style of an FDA food pyramid, the guitars, drums and bass would be at the bottom. Keys, synths and assorted electronics would be one level up. On the third section we’d have horns and strings. The top of the pyramid, where we find those things that should only be used sparingly, if at all, we have autotune, girlfriend with tambourine, Fred Durst, and vocoder. The vocoder on “Backstairs” cheapens an otherwise serviceable number.
Still, even as this supergroup of Canadian music vets makes an occasional misstep, it’s hard to complain about the work as a whole. It would have been far easier for the band to take a literal back to basics approach to Brill Bruisers and bring back the scrappy guitars of those earlier albums. I would have been thrilled. I have a feeling others will have been thrilled, too. Instead, by simplifying the songwriting and playfully toying with the arrangements, The New Pornographers have created a work that both recalls their early, cherished albums, and sets them up nicely for years to come. Let’s hope there’s more to come.