Spin Control

August 19, 2007


The New Pornographers, "Challengers" (Matador) 3 and a half stars

"Every time I make money from playing music, it feels like I'm pulling the wool over someone's eyes," singer-songwriter Carl Newman recently told the Toronto Star, and that comment says a lot about the charms of his much-vaunted Canadian indie-rock supergroup. Four albums into a burgeoning career, the New Pornographers still feel like a casual labor of love drawing together a bunch of old friends -- including Dan Bejar, the other primary songwriter, and sometimes Chicagoan Neko Case -- for occasional recordings wherein the participants, brilliant students of rock history one and all, try to outdo one another by seeing who can pack the most hooks into each irresistible song.

At first blush, "Challengers" may seem a little more sedate and slightly less giddy than "Twin Cinema" (2005), with sophisticated orchestral-pop textures such as organ, mandolin, glockenspiel, flute, sawing strings and plucking banjo fleshing out the more direct arrangements of earlier discs. But the layered vocal harmonies and the sing-along melodies still abound on infectious tracks such as Bejar's lovably strange "Myriad Harbour"; the delightfully effervescent "Mutiny, I Promise You"; the Case-driven title track and the Kathryn Calder showcase, "Failsafe." And it all builds to a rousing closer, "The Spirit of Giving," that rivals the last disc's "Sing Me Spanish Techno" for status as the band's finest anthem.

While members of this collective offer varying pleasures on their own recordings -- with Case topping the list, Newman somewhere in the middle and Bejar's Destroyer disappointingly near the bottom -- they continue to create something special whenever they come together, egos subsumed for the benefit of songs, and a good time guaranteed for any fan of smart, well-crafted and inventive pop music.


M.I.A., "Kala" (Interscope) 3 stars

A Sri Lankan rapper raised in London, Maya Arulpragasam, a k a M.I.A., became a critical darling with her 2005 debut, "Arular." But for my money, that disc never lived up to the promise of its admittedly wonderful single, "Galang," much less the mountains of hype heaped upon her, and her live shows were and continue to be a big disappointment.

Largely produced by Florida DJ Diplo but recorded abroad in India, Jamaica, Australia and the U.K. during a period when the U.S. State Department was declining her visa requests, "Kala" is an improvement over M.I.A.'s debut, but she still has shortcomings as a sometimes stilted rapper, an occasionally superficial political thinker and an artist who's prone to pandering to indie hipsters. The latter troubles me most; you just know Arulpragasam quotes the Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner" (in the opening "Bamboo Banga") and steals the hook from New Order's "Blue Monday" (in "20 Dollar") with the sole purpose of hooking rock critics -- which clearly works, since I just mentioned it.

M.I.A. is at her best when her musical perspective is at its most global -- incorporating soca beats on "Bird Flu," a mix of Bollywood orchestral flourishes and Italian disco beats on "Jimmy," and a chorus of Aboriginal kids on "Mango Pickle Down River" -- and when her politics are the most personal, dealing with the challenges of being an outspoken, socially aware feminist in a genre that is still very much a man's world. Though, sadly, her sense of self-empowerment didn't prompt her to shoot down the bad tepee jokes or mediocre production of Timbaland's disc-closing cameo, "Come Around."

The Mekons, "Natural" (Quarter Stick) 3 and a half stars

To celebrate its 30th anniversary -- the now largely Chicago-based Mekons formed in Leeds way back in 1977 -- and to produce its first album of new material since 2002 (not counting the re-recording of some of early classics for "Punk Rock" in 2004), the band's ever-prolific founders, Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh, sequestered themselves with their current compatriots in the English countryside, "drank whiskey all night, listened to the rocks and the Stones and tuned into strange old frequencies," to quote their new bio, and recorded "Natural" as a sort of twisted back-porch hootenanny, drawing on American roots music, Celtic folk, country, rock and all of the other diverse sounds that long have been part of the band's unique mix.

The result is one of the most inviting and accessible albums the band has ever produced. With standout tracks such as the aptly named "Dark Dark Dark," "Give Me Wine or Money" and the Sally Timms showcase "The Hope and the Anchor," "Natural" is certain to please fans of earlier, mostly acoustic gems -- 1988's "So Good It Hurts" comes to mind -- as well as standing on its own as a great introduction for someone who's delayed diving into the Mekons' lengthy catalog because the band just has too many recordings (not to mention splinter groups) to its credit.