Porno for pop-ettes

Challengers tests the New Pornographers' formula
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New Pornographers ringleader A.C. Newman's life has changed a lot since his 2004 solo debut, The Slow Wonder (Matador), became the secret darling of indie aficionados round the world: he relocated from his native Vancouver to Brooklyn, married the girl of his dreams, and became a morning person.

His music has metamorphosed too. "Some people think that this record is a real departure for us," Newman explained early one recent morning from his Park Slope home. He was talking about Challengers (Matador), the controversial new album from his indie supergroup, which slows the band's trademark pop hooks to a more cerebral pace. This evolution, rife with organic instrumentals, has elicited the industry tag grower from multiple critics and left legions of fans scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to dance to the strange new tempo.

Newman and his cohorts didn't set out to shock and awe their fans — the new sound is part of a natural growth. Sick of synths and willing to try something new, the band turned to an old trick of sorts.

"Our records are always made with whatever's lying around," Newman said. In the past a band member has happened on a Wurlitzer here, a pump organ there, and these influences have informed the shapes of recordings. But this time, he continued, "it just so happened that when we came to Brooklyn, 'what was lying around' was a lot more. There's a great creative feeling, a bigger infrastructure of musicians here. I felt like we had access to these totally amazing A-list people."

The borough treasures gathered for the album included a Broadway cellist, part of Sufjan Stevens's string section, an extraordinarily gifted flutist, and even a French horn. "It feels like cheating sometimes," Newman said of the last-minute flourishes. "But I'm glad we opened it up to other people's influences."

Even the idea of New York made its way onto Challengers. Clocking in at just under seven minutes, "Unguided" is a miniepic that chronicles Newman's flirtations with the city through a cryptic lyricism that shines bright: "You wrote yourself into a corner, safe/ Easy to defend your borders." A contribution by Destroyer's Dan Bejar, "Myriad Harbor," serves up a Bob Dylan–esque take on urban boredom replete with Brian Wilson–caliber harmonies. Standout tracks include the Newman–Neko Case duet "Adventures in Solitude" and the title track, which discovers Case at her best. The delicate croons of "We are the challengers of the unknown" over fragile strains of banjo give us the opportunity to pretend we're hearing the alt-country chanteuse for the first time. Porno purists will appreciate "All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth," although the title seems to drip with hubris: the saccharine-pop nod conjures up the band's early sound, as does "Mutiny, I Promise You," a hook-laden propellant painted with the woodwinds and half bars of '60s pop.

With both Case and Bejar on the road with the Pornographers, the cosmos has aligned to present Challengers in its true form. Newman confesses that live shows are always bittersweet for him "because of the nature of our band. Sometimes we're playing, and I'll think, 'Is this the last time this lineup is ever going to play like this?'"

As for the camp that insists that any part of the new disc is disposable or disappointing, let's face it: when it comes to our most cherished artists, we're all needy little brats. We expect their music to inspire and describe us, infuse meaning into our daily struggles, provide the score to our love affairs, and polish the landscapes of our losses. As far as expectations go, that's a little steep, don't ya think?

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