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Red Head Redemption: The New Pornographers Knock Out Power-Pop on ‘Brill Bruisers’

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: August 26, 2014
Label: Matador

Not since the legendary I Love Lucys has a band repped for red hair harder than the New Pornographers. Rather than playing the pheomelanin freak card like Tori Amos or waving a flame-headed flag like La Roux or Simply Red, the band’s four gingers—singer-songwriter/co-producer Carl Newman, bassist/producer John Collins, singer/guitarist/keyboardist Kathryn Calder, and moonlighting supernova Neko Case – build a blare with their dominant-gene bandmates that’s biologically left of ordinary. For as much as they overtly and unconsciously reference decades of classic rock and pop, the Vancouver-formed, now multi-city octet always twist the results. By design, they’re never normative.

As its title suggests, Brill Bruisers gets feisty while celebrating the compositional craft that made New York’s Brill Building a locus for tune-driven fa-la-la. Reversing their gradual progression toward gentler, grander grooves, the Pornographers’ sixth album is both their liveliest since their first and their most immediate. Strip it down to its propulsive guitars and Brill Bruisers is practically punk: There are as many speedy distorted chords as there are synths gurgling out willfully plastic arpeggios. Xanadu, later-day ELO, and New Wave glam oddballs Sigue Sigue Sputnik are all consciously conjured, but there’s plenty of Pixies too.

That’s not an entirely unprecedented approach: The Apples in Stereo did it on 2007’s similarly bubbly yet spunky New Magnetic Wonder. What makes Brill Bruisers more than an imitative triumph is that it culminates what the New Pornographers have been doing right for 14 years. No other 21st century band boasts a broader, more idiosyncratic combination of voices: the mild-mannered but barbed rocker (Newman), the deadpan Dada poet (Destroyer’s Dan Bejar), the cooing crooner (Calder), and the C&W belter (Case). They’ve occasionally juxtaposed their dissimilar styles for maximum effect on career peaks like Electric Version‘s surging “The Laws Have Changed,” but here they do that throughout, and the resulting cumulative motion elevates the already exuberant material: This is the most consistent entry in their rarely flagging catalog.

The opening title track announces this achievement with a majestic choral equivalent of a bugle call. Celebrating the glory of rock, Newman avoids cliché with extended metaphors that revel in the sounds of words, not just their meaning: “We go in fighting, decrying the rising star dying from its own virus,” he muses. “It’s tied in, a fire in love with sirens.” “Champions of Red Wine” showcases an uncharacteristically fireworks-free Case, who’s briefly pushed aside by an even classier chiming guitar solo. She and Newman come together for “Fantasy Fools,” a second round of self-mythologizing fabulousness. “We were the fortune seekers with backyard dreams that bleed their secrets,” Newman sings of his band fighting the odds with flesh and stealth.

Like the aforementioned tracks, nearly every cut lauds the lovely folly of being in a big rock gang in a cost-cutting era of twosomes, a time when their communal bliss gets continuously upstaged by tech cowboys and celebrity ninjas. “I wanted to stay true to the cause, but look what we’re living in,” Bejar laments as a chugging guitar army fights the good fight in his explosive “War on the East Coast.” “There is another west, much wilder,” Newman continues in “Backstairs.” Fronting an eight-member ensemble never gets old; it’s the ground beneath him that keeps changing. Having examined his personal life on 2012’s solo Shut Down the Streets, he now speaks for the team, folding his cry into Case’s and Calder’s. The intensity backs off midway through Bruisers but not the tempo: Drummer Kurt Dahle, a key but often overlooked Porn-ster, breaks from pushing the beat onward only on “Another Drug Deal of the Heart,” a brief rewrite of a vinyl B-side, but even here metronomic guitars and staccato keys maintain locomotive momentum.

These history-conscious vets aim to compete for clicks with today’s too-desperate upstarts, but they do so with more than simple ADD-busting earworms. Time and time again, they affirm their faith. “What the heart can’t imagine, we’ll trust,” Case asserts in “Marching Orders.” “I wanted you quite often,” Bejar admits in the suspense-building “Born with a Sound,” and the object of his desire is continual inspiration, perpetual creation. “I still see hope for you,” Newman and Case serenade together in “Wide Eyes,” and they share the same “you” as Bejar: They want not only to stay in the game; they lust for victory.

“Now I got, got the floor!” Newman and Calder rejoice in the vocoder hiccupping “Dancehall Domine” as Dahle crashes and wallops. There’s no room for doubt, just affirmation and joy, and as the album reaches its final stretch, only “Hi-Rise,” the penultimate cut, lets the tension slightly slacken, but the hooks never relent; synths keep goosing the acoustic guitars. Finally, “You Tell Me Where” consummates the disc on yet another hopeful high note. “Baby beware, I’m not always square,” Newman warns between one last round of Case blasts, making good on his threat with something new—an assured snarl. It’s a blatant rock star move, and although he’s recently become a family man, he’s never before been this ready for trouble. No doubt the bullies back in school kept Red on the run, but this time he and his comrades in cardinal don’t back down. They go for what they’ve been craving all these years. Not to fit in, but to bust out.