Aural Pleasure

This guy’s beenputting out a steady stream of intelligent continental soft pop, the kind of perfect party background music that doesn’t intrude on anybody’s personal space, but rather swirls around the contours of one’s head like a comfortable pillow. And on even closer investigation, you’ll find Rouse singing funny lyrics, such as “I wanna die in a car crash, in the back of a New York City cab,” only to recant later in the song that he has too much to live for and, what’s worse, the cab driver’s “got an attitude.”

Somewhere, somebody ruined the term “easy listening” for the rest of us by insulting the listener’s intelligence with banal, greeting-card sentiments and dullard arrangements. Rouse always has something extra going on underneath his limited but engaging almost talk-sung delivery — an insinuating pedal steel, a Synclavier, a gentle mellotron, or a horn section. He may remind some of Paul Simon, especially on “Hollywood Bass Player,” a bouncy travelogue that hops from Manhattan to Paris where “The French didn’t want me around, they didn’t like my groove,” and finally to Hollywood, each time sweating out that it’s his last chance to get it right.

You’ll also find him and girlfriend Paz Suey (together, they recently released an irresistible five-song EP titled She’s Spanish, I’m American) duetting on a song that offers the greatest soft-focus snapshot of a slowly disintegrating relationship since Rupert Holmes’s “Escape (The Piña Colada Song).” When a song with lyrical truths such as “Domesticated lovers never know they’re fighting” comes on the stereo, you squirm. Unless the rot has already set in.

— Serene Dominic

Probably the most amusing aspect of The New Pornographers’ new album, Challengers, can be found not on the disc itself, but on Matador Records’ press release about it.

Band leader A.C. Newman tells us that the title song is his version of Bacharach/David’s “24 Hours From Tulsa,” that the ballad “Go Places” is Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” crossed with Harry Nilsson’s “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune,” and that the driving “Mutiny, I Promise You” could fit on a 5th Dimension album if you slowed it down.

Newman’s pop-nerd credentials are impeccable, and there’s no doubt he takes inspiration from all the sources he cites. But he’s apparently unaware that his songs are infinitely more oblique than the direct, linear classics he tries to ape.

From the beginning, The New Pornographers’ appeal has rested on their ability to make brainiac, convoluted pop feel accessible, and the way they periodically rescue Neko Case from her own dour, goth-country muse and enable her to sing lead on three or four ebullient ravers per album.

Some of that ebullience has drained out of the bottle over the last seven years, and Challengers feels studied and somber next to 2000’s Mass Romantic or its glorious follow-up, Electric Version. But the band’s mastery of the pop-rock playbook is so complete that, like their funkier indie-rock compatriots Spoon, they could probably make well-crafted records while peeling potatoes in their sleep.

The most instantaneous charmers here are the rollicking “All The Things That Go To Make Heaven and Earth” and “Mutiny, I Promise You,” but, with the notable exception of the lead-footed “Failsafe,” they all make circuitous journeys to your pleasure centers. As usual, The New Pornographers rock out to weird meters, and mete out a pop history lesson written in hieroglyphics.

— Gilbert Garcia

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