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The New Pornographers Return With A 'Celebration Record' That's Fun To Figure Out


This is FRESH AIR. The chief songwriter for the Canadian-based rock band The New Pornographers, AC Newman, calls the band's new album, "Brill Bruisers," a celebration record. He's quoted as saying, "after periods of difficulty, I'm at a place where nothing in my life is dragging me down." And the music reflects that.

Rock critic Ken Tucker listened to "Brill Bruisers" to figure out what Newman meant.(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHAMPIONS OF RED WINE")

THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS: (Singing) We're champions of red wine. We're poured all over. It's what we're known for. The fine art of crossed lines. Crossed for old times. Like starting over.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The eight members of The New Pornographers have each conducted separate careers. For example, singer-songwriter Neko Case works as a solo artist and singer-guitarist Dan Bejar has his band, Destroyer. But under the guidance of ad hoc leader Allan Carl - AC - Newman, The New Pornographers combine to form something much different than the sum of its parts.

In the case of this album, "Brill Bruisers," it's a collection of lushly arranged and harmonized pop. For all the straightforwardness of the music, Newman has a fondness for teasingly elliptical lyrics. I cheerfully admit, I don't know what the lyric of "Fantasy Fools" means, but the music, especially as it barrels into the chorus, communicates a happiness that I find exhilarating no matter how many times I play it.


THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS: (Singing) Here come the fortune seekers. Backyard dreams that bleed their secrets. The fortune seekers. Spinning wheels in the sand, all out of body, out of hand. The plan to redirect the arc of time is spread out on the bedspread stained with wine. The handsome hells on your daylight sits like they look brand-new. Let's begin then. The fantasy fool the experts, too. What the hell, since we traveled so far from the future for you. Let's begin then, the fantasy, fool the experts.

TUCKER: As you can hear from that song, The New Pornographers is making music whose influences are fun to figure out. I hear some ABBA in the harmonies, some ELO in the keyboards. On other songs, there's everything from the playful, pompous rock of Queen to the soulful harmonies of The Mamas and the Papas, emanating from the contributions of strong vocalist Kathryn Calder, among others. Which means ultimately that this band is creating its own sound, using the time-tested pop-culture method of picking and choosing from anything and everything, recombined for original effects.


THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS: (Singing) Last night I dreamt Vancouver dressed up in the ocean. Last night I dreamt Victoria drowned in the ocean. The ride of a lifetime. The rites of spring of a lifetime. The ride of a lifetime. The rites of spring of a lifetime.

TUCKER: If you separate out the individual members of this band, each has made his or her share of moody, morose, even despairing music. Indeed, it has sometimes seemed as though the voice of Neko Case, low and rumbling, was made for conjuring up melancholy. But there's a brightness and light that emanates from these musicians when they become The New Pornographers. Although Newman does most of the songwriting on "Brill Bruisers," the working out of the arrangements and each song's instrumental effects comes across as very much collaborative efforts, whether they are or not. The result is a band in harmony, in every sense.


THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS: (Singing) Out on the waves over the railing, asking the crowd to send you back to stage instead of sailing away. They left behind looking for searchlights leading the charge. The mass appeal to brilliant bruisers taking the wheel. And the sea was all right. It was all right. It's all we know now to never go back.

TUCKER: One thing that the title song suggests is that the band is using brill in the British slang manner - as short for brilliant. AC Newman also wants you to make the association with the Brill building, the Manhattan edifice that housed famous songwriting teams in the '60s. The band is even going to give a concert in the lobby of that building to promote this album. But the brilliant bruisers cited in the song's lyrics are stand-ins for the group members themselves. Music industry pros who take pride in a muscular professionalism in being prolific and when need be, pugnacious. It's what gives a song such as "Backstairs" a real punch.


THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS: (Singing) Before I knew to choose the music of celebrity I sang backups on the backstairs. Backstairs, the backstairs the backstairs. I wore a groove sneaking around the servant's quarters so, so I knew my way around the backstairs. There is another west you'll find out it's stealing from the rest. There is another west much wilder. You're feeling under us. And yet another west, the new one where you are.

TUCKER: So to circle back to AC Newman's declaration that "Brill Bruisers" is a celebration record - well, yes, there's a frequently thrilling exuberance to the music here. The satisfaction to be savored of a band having worked of the course of two years to make the full flowering of any given sound sound like spontaneous growth, which is just one measure of the growth of the band itself, a maturity that is confident enough to make capturing the sound of immature joy sound like the art it is.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the "Brill Bruisers," the latest album from The New Pornographers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
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