THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS: Challengers [Matador]

For the New Pornographers, 2005’s Twin Cinema marked a period of significant transition. Not only were the band’s hyper-pop blitzes tempered with more sobering balladry and expansive, prog-informed set pieces, but the promotion of touring keyboardist Kathryn Calder to co-vocalist suggested that ringleader Carl Newman was no longer willing to work around the ever-busy schedule of star chanteuse Neko Case. (To say nothing of wild-card contributor Dan “Destroyer” Bejar, who’s also running on borrowed time.) So it’s with considerable relief that all the original Pornographers appear in their usual proportions on Challengers, underscoring their commitment to a cause that, four albums in, shows no signs of flagging. Where Twin Cinema featured a sometimes abrupt trade-off between upbeat and downcast, Challengers feels more comfortable with the act of taking it easy. Unlike the hard-charging openers of albums past, Challengers begins with the beatific “My Rights Versus Yours,” whose ascending, melancholic melody is left unadorned until the second chorus, when the drums kick in to trigger a gentle, piano-pounded gallop to the finish line. The song sets the album’s pleasingly patient tone. While longtime fans may lament the paucity of instamatic anthems, “All The Old Showstoppers” and “Unguided” reveal their charms with each new verse. And really, we end up just where we did seven years ago, with a rousing, Bejar-penned finale. But where Mass Romantic’s “Breaking The Law” demanded the keys to the kingdom, Challengers’ “The Spirit Of Giving” finds the Pornos on the inside, victorious and sitting pretty. [www.matadorrecords.com]

—Stuart Berman