New Pornographers, ‘Whiteout Conditions’: Album Review
Those Canadians know something about driving in Whiteout Conditions, but neither rain, nor sleet nor snow can halt the power pop of Vancouver rockers the New Pornographers. The band’s alluring drive and melodic treasures remain in abundance on their new album.
Not that Whiteout Conditions is without some big changes. Their seventh full-length is their first without drummer Kurt Dahle, who left after Brill Bruisers in 2014 and has been replaced by the sturdy Joe Seiders. It also marks the first time that Dan Bejar doesn’t stop by to write and sing a few songs.
It’s possible that, once he realized Bejar wouldn’t be contributing, frontman Carl Newman decided to hone a more specific “sound” on this record. He’s spoken about Whiteout Conditions being more cohesive. It is, certainly from a vocal perspective. The album marks a switch from the sort of round-robin approach of “Carl sings one, Neko Case sings one, Dan sings one,” to a more blended sound. Newman, Case and singer-keyboardist Kathryn Calder melt their brightly colored crayons together, often creating a choral effect that builds on the soaring vocals of Brill Bruisers standout “You Tell Me Where.”
As a whole, the new record expands Brill’s buzzy, synth-forward sound. The Pornos weave solid blocks of interwoven guitars, keyboards, vocals and rhythms. Add Newman’s impermeable, sometimes overstuffed, lyrics to the mix and this can be a dense listening experience – albeit one that remains attractive in its deployment of melody, pretty voices and pulsing percussion.
Newman has admitted that part of the concept behind Whiteout Conditions was to merge the layered vocals of the 5th Dimension with the sharp rhythms of Krautrock. Crazy as it might sound, those comparisons come through on the album, which frequently blends Newman, Case and Calder into an elegant swoosh of singing. That’s not to say they don’t shine separately. The incandescent glow of Neko’s voice buzzes the opener “Play Money,” with the others joining in, bending the words on the bridge into a loop-de-loop.
The simple, hypnotic grooves of Krautrock also are apparent. The beats are crisp, fast and always moving forward, sometimes at a punk-rock pace that’s only softened by the graceful slope of the vocalists (“Avalanche Alley”). A strummed acoustic intertwines with the persistent beat or a marimba tap dances around a fuzz bass and a vocal tic. Elsewhere, fluttering synthesizers and obvious samples come into play, from the percussive drip-drop of “Juke” to the fractured sighs cut and pasted into “Second Sleep.”
Listen to "This Is the World of the Theater"
The music is a balance between the dark and the light, a reflection of Newman’s lyrics. On Whiteout Conditions, he writes about depression (the title track) and sings about “the violence of yearning / Defiance of learning” on the political “High Ticket Attractions.” But Newman also appears focused on artistry, whether in the form of a surreal vision of a “valley of lead singers” (“Clockwise”), “colosseums of the mind” (“Colosseums”) or a theatrical troupe proclaiming the benefits of their lifestyle (“This Is the World of the Theater”). That last song features the typically wry, Newman-esque line, “Think of all the lives we’re saving / Think of all the legs we’re breaking.”
Who can argue? The sonically streamlined New Pornographers keep breaking legs and taking names.
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