Brill Bruisers, by The New Pornographers
2014, Matador Records. Producer: A.C. Newman, John Collins, Howard Redekopp.
In My Collection: CD, 2014.
(Five minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL: Brill Bruisers, the 2014 album from the Canadian collective, is power pop with infectious melodies. Its 80s-style synths are made modern-sounding by pounding drums and vocal hooks. The stars of the record are the multiple singers, particularly Carl Newman and Neko Case, who carry the soaring, swooping melodies from Newman and co-songwriter Dan Bejar. It’s music that sounds modern and classic, even if the lyrics often leave me scratching my head.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 60.
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It’s difficult to pin down when, exactly, my taste in music stopped being “hip,” and frankly, considering some of the albums on my 100 Faves List, I’d understand if you came to the conclusion that it never was. The late 80s and early 90s were probably when my tastes and those of the Music Critterati were most simpatico. However, by the late 90s I was completely unaware of what in-the-know music fans were buying, with one or two exceptions.
The early 00s were a blur of toddlers and new homes, and the only new music I heard seemed to come from the same four artists: The Wiggles, They Might Be Giants, Laurie Berkner and Dan Zanes. Outside of a daycare setting, these artists were not really cutting-edge (except for TMBG, who have always been cutting edge). By the early 2010s, I wasn’t even sure how to listen to music anymore, and had no idea who or what was considered to be hip. I don’t know if Capital Cities or fun or Travie McCoy or Duck Sauce or Far East Movement were ever hip, but my pre-teen kids at the time were way, way on board, and I guess that meant I was too? Sort of?
In those days I was still listening to the radio before work while I made breakfast and lunches for the kids. On both WXRV, a local independent station, or college station WERS, I began hearing tracks that I really loved from a band whose name I’d heard before. The songs were pop/rock, catchy, memorable, and they were newly released. The fact that I, a man in his mid-40s, was connecting to new music somehow made me feel, well, “hip.” I’d heard a few new records in the past 15 years, mostly from artists I already liked or bands my friends told me about. But hearing Brill Bruisers, by The New Pornographers, on the radio reignited my interest in what was new.
It’s difficult to classify this music. It’s got a bit of XTC, in its knack for melody. Lyrically, it’s got the dreamy quality of some 90s alt-rock, like Belly. Its wall-of-sound production is not very guitar-heavy, but the terrific opening track, “Brill Bruisers,” still packs a wallop.
It’s got a regal bass line, from John Collins, marching drums and a “bo-bah-ba-ba-ba-bo” hook that is as catchy as it is silly. Lead Pornographer Carl Newman handles the hyper-melodic vocals, which describe crowd-surfing at a concert as seen from the stage. It’s got cool booping organ riffs, like at 0:45, and drummer Kurt Dahle adds a few extra beats to his march to keep it interesting. The bridge (1:37) demonstrates the band’s secret weapon: vocalists Neko Case and Kathryn Calder, who perform backup vocals and share lead vocals throughout the record. The New Pornographers’ strength lies in their multiple excellent vocalists. (By the way, here’s a cool performance of the song on Late Night with David Letterman.)
It makes sense the band would have great vocalists, since the entire band is really a collective made up of solo artists. The excellent “Champions of Red Wine” shows off the vocal skills of Neko Case, a very accomplished solo act, as well as the record’s production. The twirling keyboards and faux-voice synth sound great, as does the dreamy, Mamas-and-Papas-y bridge (2:23). The song’s about hooking up with an ex, I think.
Many songs on Brill Bruisers feature driving guitar chords, played cleanly, that if distorted would make killer metal songs. As with “Champions of Red Wine,” the song “Fantasy Fools” fits that mold.
It also includes another prominent feature of Brill Bruiser‘s sound: vocalized sounds, as heard in the opening. But what makes this one of my favorites is the hook-heavy chorus (0:45). The shimmery keyboards behind the heavy drums are terrific. Newman sings confidently lyrics that I don’t know what they mean. Bedspreads? Rapture? Hang bells on your daylights? I don’t know, man, but that’s okay. I’m a fan of Steely Dan, Yes, R.E.M. … I don’t necessarily need to know what it all means, especially when it sounds this good!
AC Newman isn’t the only songwriter for the band. At this time, Dan Bejar was also contributing songs, and “War on the East Coast” is a good one. It’s got a driving beat, is packed with imagery, and – as usual – is catchy as heck. “Backstairs” is an 80s pop song, complete with synth-vocals, and boopity-beeps, but it doesn’t do much for me. (Apart from the Brian Wilson-y vocals.)
“Marching Orders” mixes the boopy synth with a strumming acoustic, and lets loose Case on a great tune about … a war, of sorts? Who knows? It’s got good drums, though. “Another Drug Deal of the Heart” is a short piece with cool guitar, and nice vocals from Calder.
Bejar shows off his songwriting chops once again on “Born With a Sound.”
The song builds slowly, with a driving guitar and Bejar’s voice. Guest artist Amber Webber takes co-lead vocals, and the pair’s voices blend beautifully. At about 1:16, it starts to sound very 80s, with some Mr. Roboto-esque vocal tricks and New Order-ish keyboards. Of course, the melody is top-notch, and the lyrics are … well, I think they’re about how love is like a personal song that stays stuck in one’s head? “Spidyr” is a bloopy number from Bejar, also inscrutable, but with a nice harmonica solo, but doesn’t do much for me.
“Wide Eyes” also has 80s style synths, but even though I didn’t really like that sound back then, this song is one of my favorites.
Newman takes on another rangey melody, on a number that sounds very Shins-like. Case joins him on the chorus, and nails it. The drums throw in a few extra beats throughout, which are nice. The song also features the vocalizations that are common on Brill Bruisers, and builds with some subtle orchestration. The song seems to be about taking on challenges, as seen (perhaps) through Evel Knievel’s famous (for Gen-Xers) sky-cycle jump over Snake River Canyon. “Hi-Rise” is similar in its vocalizations and synth-y feel. It’s airy and light, and seems to be about a fear of heights?
My favorite song on Brill Bruisers combines the band’s great sounds and melodies, and puts them together with a dance beat to produce the LCD Soundsystem-esque “Dancehall Domine.”
The drums are pounding, and Calder takes co-lead vocals, her voice fitting perfectly with Newman’s. The chorus (0:45) is just great, and it again uses a nonsense verbal hook. It really shines when it gets to the “I, I’ve got the floor” chorus. (Here’s a trippy video for the song.) It’s pretty much a straight-up song about dancing, with more of the arcade sounds of synth chirping along. The instrumental break at 2:11 is weird and fun. This song is just terrific.
The album closes with “You Tell Me Where,” which might be about an angry guy who decides he wants his girlfriend back?
It’s classic Brill Bruisers. Driving guitars, winding melody, multiple voices … The song breaks down at about 2:00, then builds back to 2:34, where it breaks again. Then at 3:01 to the end it’s a sing-along song. It’s a song of two people coming together, and it’s a great album closer.
The more I listen to this record the more I realize that it’s probably not very hip, and it was probably never hip. But it’s got a sound I love, and maybe at a certain point keeping up with the latest sounds isn’t really a worthwhile pursuit. As long as I can find records like Brill Bruisers that I like, I’ll be a happy music listener. And maybe that keeps me hip?
“Champions of Red Wine“
“War on the East Coast“
“Another Drug Deal of the Heart“
“Born With a Sound“
“You Tell Me Where“