Here’s Tiny Mix Tapes‘ Embling: “Only a fool or staunch contrarian would argue that Brill Bruisers is one of The New Pornographers’ best albums. It’s a modest, pleasing effort, and a fine return on a previously diminishing investment, but it isn’t any kind of new beginning for the band. Half the charm of The New Pornographers hinges upon their frivolous, inessential nature, and as Case and Bejar become increasingly popular on their own, the Pornographers become less essential than ever.”
Well, then, call me a fool and staunch contrarian. It’s true, the New Pornographers have become less essential than ever (not that they were ever all that ‘essential’, even during indie rock’s heyday), and Neko Case and Daniel Bejar (a.k.a. Destroyer) have solo careers where it’s clear that they have shinier personalities and songwriting than A.C. Newman, but let’s make clear that neither Case nor Bejar have made an album as consistently entertaining as Twin Cinema (though Kaputt comes close). And though Embling does make clear that Brill Bruisers ‘correct[s]’ their course, that this is better than both 2007’s Challengers (which I don’t remember) and 2010’s Together (which I can’t remember), that’s damning this album with faint praise. Thesis: this is one of their best albums. Third, in fact, after Twin Cinema and Mass Romantic.
Of course, several years after indie rock’s rise, it’s perhaps not surprising that critics kind of just threw a modest score at this modest band and gathered to watch FKA twigs’ videos. Pitchfork‘s Stuart Berman complained that Brill Bruisers suffers because a “bulky 13-song tracklist” – fuckin’ huh? That’s as many songs as Electric Version had; that’s one less song than Twin Cinema had, and if it weren’t for the 1-minute “Another Drug Deal of the Heart,” this would have as many songs as any of the rest of their albums. Elsewhere, Embling complains that “The only thing missing, frankly, is the easy confidence they possessed around the turn of the millennium.” Um, no: they sound more confident than ever now that they don’t have to please anyone. Consider the experimentation, which isn’t really all that much, but more than you’d expect on a New Pornographers album: replacing the strings of Champions with the vocal loops throughout “Champions of Red Wine”, the Daft Punk-esque vocals of “Backstairs” (perhaps they were taking notes during listens of Modern Vampires of the City), the triumphant harmonica of “War on the East Coast” and “Spidyr” (a remake of “Spider” from 2009’s Enemy Mine), the intro of “Born With a Sound”, the glossy keyboards and synths throughout (especially prominent on the Neko-led “Champions of Red Wine” and “Marching Orders”); and consider how effortlessly they incorporate these new sounds into their well-established lexicon.
Hold for a second, and really consider “Champions of Red Wine”: with its indelible synth hook, the sound of cascading stars; how the just-mentioned vocal loop counterpoints with those synths; the twinkly keyboards during the verse acting like plucked strings; the nudge of motion provided the guitar in the background; the lyrics “I think we could save lives / If we don’t spend them” and “I am not your love song / Love song gone wrong” (confidence incarnate); the close vocal harmonies during that verse; the well-executed bridge, itself a catchy island of wordless vocals and a brief guitar solo; the inherent sadness of hearing someone say they are a ‘champion of red wine’. If Brill Bruisers isn’t their best album, fine: “Champions of Red Wine” is their best song, and it stunned me to just find out that Neko Case isn’t the person responsible for writing it (recall: she’s responsible for writing “Letter From An Occupant,” previous best New Pornographers song, and “Man,” a.k.a. best rock song of 2013 that no one talked about). (Bad move not releasing this as your first single; this is akin to Arcade Fire sitting on top of “Sprawl II” and releasing everything else possible from The Suburbs. Oh yeah, “Champions” is better than “Sprawl II” as well – whaddyaknow?)
Elsewhere, as power pop parameters dictate, there are plenty of strong melodies abound, especially in the choruses of “Brill Bruisers,” the choruses of “Fantasy Fools,” the verses of “Backstairs,” the pre-choruses of “Dancehall Domine” and the grand finale of “You Tell Me Where”. Surprisingly, other than “War on the East Coast” where lightning-quick synths run laps around Dan Bejar’s distinct vocals and melodies, Bejar’s contributions are … not much to shout about: “Born With a Sound”, despite harmony-help from Amber Webber, is less memorable than the preceding quickie, with its counterpoint melodies between the jubilant keyboard line and Kathryn Calder’s diffident vocal; “Spyder”’s harmonica is the best part of the song.
I remember consciously comparing Broken Social Scene and The New Pornographers in my head when I first fell in love with both back in high school. It made sense: they were both Canadian, they were both supergroups, they both had lovely female vocals to juxtapose the more muscular but less distinct male ones (Kevin Drew and A.C. Newman). And I remember at the time thinking Broken Social Scene were better, because You Forgot It In People was and remains a marvel. But over time, it’s clear that that album was some sort of accident, or at least something they couldn’t recreate: they’ve descended into more and more generic indie rock with each release (with an unforgiveable gap of 5 years between Broken Social Scene and Forgiveness Rock Record). But I can’t see Broken Social Scene creating something equal in quality to Brill Bruisers at this point in time after hearing Forgiveness Rock Record. Yet, with its slight experimentation and strong melodies, I can see the New Pornographers recreating something just as good for their next album.