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New musical moods

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The New Pornographers

Challengers

Matador

The ringing of an unanswered phone, cuckoldry's cruel anthem, tolls ominously in the background of the title track of the New Pornographers' new album.

Though the song "Challengers" is, on the surface, about a budding romance, the unspoken subtext is about those who are left behind in new love's wake. The lead vocals by the incomparable Neko Case shimmer with gorgeous ambivalence, shifting between story line and impressionistic asides, crafting a profound and encompassing mood of longing and loss.

The band's founder and lead songwriter, A.C. Newman, is at the top of his game. Though the New Pornographers have been putting out consistently good albums since their founding, "Challengers" shows the band working at an entirely new level.

Despite layers of complexity on both the arrangements and the lyrics, the album feels as though it were put together in a single binge of inspiration. The instrumentation is basic and consistent throughout the songs, with only a few string, wind and brass parts added here and there to play off the guitar-bass-drums combination. There are few memorable hooks, cheap or otherwise. Instead, Mr. Newman and the band rely on the naked strength of the simple riffs; powerful, haunting lyrics; and soaring harmonies.

Guitarist Dan Bejar contributed four of the 12 songs, including the cool, impressionistic "Myriad Harbour," a terrific New York song that recalls Velvet Underground with its rumbling rhythm guitar line, its call-and-response vocals and an almost angry guitar solo. Mr. Bejar's lyrics offer a paean to New York ennui that rivals the best of Lou Reed with the line: "Stranded at Bleecker and Broadway looking for something to do/ Someone somewhere asked me is there anything in particular I can help you with/ All I ever wanted help with was you."

Keyboard player Kathryn Calder sings lead on the back-to-back tracks "Failsafe" and the 6½-minute "Unguided." Her voice is a little flatter and a lot chillier than Miss Case's, although they play very well off each other. Miss Calder tours with the New Pornographers and sings Neko Case's parts when Miss Case is off tending to her own solo career. It feels like a studied move to give Miss Calder her own leads, perhaps signaling a decline in Miss Case's centrality to the band's sound.

Miss Case takes the lead on "Go Places," a frankly beautiful love song that feels like a sequel to the wistful "Challengers." Her strong, plaintive voice is suited to Mr. Newman's lyrics, as when she sings, "The heart always stays one day too long." Mr. Newman has a knack for songs about that "one day too long," written and presented without sentimentality or falseness.