January 29, 2023
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Life & Culture

Review: Canadian rockers break hiatus with “Brill Bruisers”

The New Pornographers

"Brill Bruisers"

After a four-year hiatus, Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers return with “Brill Bruisers,” their sixth studio release. With the group’s three lead singers contributing their own distinct styles, the album’s tonal variation is a sonic time machine, revisiting decades and genres gone by through the various influences exhibited within the Pornographers’ writing.

Taking charge of the majority of the album, frontman A.C. Newman sings with emphatic exhilaration, his vocals soaring blissfully above zig-zagging arpeggiators and augmented digital effects. Both of these are new additions in “Brill Bruisers,” illustrating The New Pornographers’ evolution toward more modern musicality. Despite this contemporary input, Newman’s classic rock influences are more overtly manifested in his writing. In “Backstairs,” digital vocal distortion reminiscent of British rock group Electric Light Orchestra mixes with a clearly Beatles-influenced choral harmonization. Throughout the album, Newman masterfully blends combinations like these with his own folkie style of writing, producing epic yet familiar recordings that leave listeners on their toes.

Dan Bejar, guitarist and secondary vocalist for the Pornographers, complements Newman’s melodic effervescence, contributing vocals to a trio of Nirvana-like arias, deviating entirely from the more upbeat tone established by the rest of the album. As a result, both “War on the East Coast” and “Spidyr” leave the listeners pondering if Bejar’s guttural voice and nonsensical lyrics fit in with the rest of the set list. However, in one instance he shares vocals on “Born With a Sound” with Neko Case, whose sonic innocence wrenches Bejar from his grunge-like angst into a romantic-pop setting — perhaps a step back for such musical veterans, but they pull it off with an impressive facade of faux adolescence.

Case’s lead vocals mesh better with Newman’s bubbly pop-rock disposition. Her hauntingly innocuous voice contrasts her lyrics, as in both “Champions of Red Wine” and “Marching Orders” she tells stories of turning away from authority with an almost naive recalcitrance one would find in a late 80s early ’90s bubblegum ballad. Throughout, the band runs with Case’s flow, backing her vocals with their 21st century sound.

“Brill Bruisers” is certainly an impressive piece of work, and the story-weaving genius of Newman becomes clearer and clearer with every listen. One question that remains, however, is whether the juxtaposition of Newman, Case and Bejar’s individual styles forms a sound comprehensive enough for a single record or if more success would have come out of three respective solo albums.