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CD of The Week

Week of 9/30/19

    The New Pornographers - In The Morse Code of Brake Lights (Concord)

    The eighth New Pornographers album, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, is out now and the first question any concerned fan should ask is who is actually in the band this time. Obviously, bandleader A.C. Newman makes his signature trickling, tripping melodies and fancy falsettos felt throughout the record. You could not call it a "The New Pornographers" album without him. Neko Case fans can rejoice, as she contributes or leads on almost every track with her unwavering & elegantly powerful vocals. Unfortunately, Dan Bejar is again not present. He took leave on Whiteout Conditions and here again; his songs and contributions are sorely missed. The only crumb from the spirit of Bejar can be felt on "Need Some Giants," as he and Newman wrote the piano and string-enhanced track together.

    On top of composing and singing on every song, Newman has taken nearly complete control of the album's production, perhaps too much so, with his additional credits of bass, drum machine, percussion, engineer, producer, guitar, piano, keyboards, synthesizer, and orchestra. With all that work on his shoulders, particularly without Bejar, many of the songs fall flat.

    Most try to be bold and draw attention to themselves but are neutered by excessively smooth production and an overabundance of strings (see "Dreamlike and on the Rush" and "Leather on the Seat"). "The Surprise Knock" starts with catchy harmonized "ba-ba-ba"'s and builds promisingly to the main chorus hook. But when it gets there, it plateaus, creating a desire for a more satisfying delivery. The opening funky bass and handclap rhythm section of the single "Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile" clears a path for something that could be truly magical. But once the chorus hits, Case's vocals feel restrained, treading safe and smooth waters. Even on the orchestral/synth mash-up "Higher Beams," Newman sings the aggressive phrase "f*ck you for nothing" with the veracity of a child's wind-up music box. That is not to say that these are not all good songs, but just OK songs by The New Pornographers' standards.

    Brake Lights is an evolutionary step for an iconic indie band that has been staying creative for two-plus decades. They don't owe it to anyone to be the same band they were 16 years ago. The power-pop melodies are still there, wrapped in packages of sophisticated, expensive taste. And this album happens to have one of their best songs ever released. "Colossus of Rhodes" is an epic song that swirls around and twinkles with synth and piano to start. A driving bassline kicks in, rattling along, and Case's vocals soar alongside the jittery melody. The rollercoaster of melodies twist and turn and new sections flow through, keeping the song fresh and ever-changing. Here, all the effects and production elements fuse together and work in a delicate balance. This is not just a New Pornographers classic, it is a classic on its own. You can bet they'll play it when they make their triumphant return to the Union Transfer on November 8th.

    Review by Shepard Ritzen

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