What’s in a name? Brill Bruisers, the sixth LP by The New Pornographers, uses New York’s famed Brill Building as a conceptual jump-off point to mimic the sounds of the decade so far. The Brill Building once housed hundreds of independent musicians and music companies: publishers, songwriters, engineers and producers, all crammed into cubbies under immense pressure to churn out smash hits. As Carole King put it, “Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You'd sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours.”
Long after the end of the big band era and the arrival of singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan and The Beatles, the Brill Building has maintained as a metaphor for laboratory-crafted, factory made, pre-fab POP, all caps. Instant gratification music by committee, sculpted solely for maximum return on investment. To me, The New Pornographers have always written in that way—brain candy that sinks hooks deep in your ears and twirls you around the room. “The Electric Version” and “Twin Cinema” are incredible songs, but be careful, you’ll wear them out if you don’t let them sit for a few months, even years in between binges.
Brill Bruisers is described by primary songwriter A.C. Newman as a “celebration record,” but to my ears it’s no more or less buoyant than the rest of the band’s work. The name of the record isn’t an accident—what struck me was how The New Pornographers have pulled a Weird Al and made a record of style pastiches of other contemporary bands, but not full pastiches, just certain sounds and signifiers that nod their head to bands like Daft Punk (the vocoder on “Backstairs”), Animal Collective (the revolving “OH-OH-OH”’s on “Fantasy Fools”), and, most strangely, the opening of Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” (Dan Bejar’s “War on the East Coast). No doubt the band, and especially the acerbic Newman, would brush off any sonic in-jokes, and my references might be off (except the Animal Collective take—anybody who doesn’t hear that just isn’t paying attention), but the Brill concept of ideas, swatches of melody, and phrasing leaking over cubicle walls and into a new batch of Pornographers songs is obvious and very cool for a band that I hadn’t kept up with since, well, Twin Cinema, over nine years ago.
Like all of their LP’s, Brill Bruisers drags as it goes on, but there’s no crap here, nothing that would get past the hall monitor or songwriting supervisor. Newman and the Pornographers have always been really good with tones: chugga-chugga power chords, gummy bear synth lines, gloriously double-tracked vocals and ADT filters that always make me think of John Lennon’s “I Should Have Known Better.” The drawback from the Pornographers’ approach throughout their catalogue is the compression and relative lack of dynamics, not necessarily in the songwriting but in the way the songs sound. I know no one is aiming for Top 40 but Brill Bruisers is produced like a Foster the People album, so the replay value is lessened just by the brick-wall dynamics of the sound. It wears on your ears, and though the hooks stick, you start to resent them for making you go back to a song hundreds and hundreds of times to diminishing results. But this has basically always been the New Pornos’ M.O., and Brill Bruisers is another fine notch in their catalogue.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1992