The New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (2017) – Album Review

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A well-named band: they provide all of the instant-gratification of pornography, it’s just that the testosterone rush comes from pop hooks and quick tempos rather than exploitation. Hurrah for them, especially when the band is as gender-balanced as it is – in contrast to pornography’s submissive women, backup and sometime lead vocalists Neko Case and Kathryn Calder come on strong and keep getting stronger. Focus on the ‘New’, i.e. progressive.

That said, the star of the show is and always has been A.C. Newman, lead singer and now sole songwriter following the departure of Dan Bejar (never a patch on him anyway). Bejar would often throw curveballs at the Pornographers’ records – see his ‘Spidyr’ on Brill Bruisers, which murmured dully along until suddenly letting loose on a freakish harmonica solo. These oddball Bejarisms were fun but didn’t always sit well with Newman’s more classically structured pop songs, so it comes as no surprise that Whiteout Conditions is the band’s most consistent album yet.

11 songs in 40 minutes, it’s as short and snappy as any great pop record should be. Compactness is the name of the game, and that applies as much to Newman’s 3-4 minute songwriting as to new drummer Joe Seider’s unfussy tempo-keeping and fills. In fact, Seider’s stability is a major asset here, demonstrating its importance through his absence on the album’s worst track, ‘We’ve Been Here Before’, which sounds aimless but you don’t know why, until the drums kick back in again on ‘Juke’ and you realise that’s why.

Up high in the mix with the percussion are the keyboards and a whole host of synthesizers, continuing the band’s fascination with Kraturock and 80s pop demonstrated on their last album, Brill Bruisers. Further moving away from the straight-up rock of their early releases (at least relatively straight-up – their influences were always eclectic), you have to concentrate hard to discern the guitars, which are drowned beneath waves of other electronic instruments. In the codas to each song, as the synths invariably dominate, you could say that they sound more like New Order than New Pornographers. But the band maintains a clear identity throughout, especially on ‘Second Sleep’, where the chopped and sampled vocals of the gal singers go beyond New Order’s chilly textures to find the humour lurking underneath.

Some highlights: barnstormer ‘High Ticket Attractions’, which plays the male and female vocalists off each other to generate mucho excitement (a trick deployed many times on this album, but never more effectively); ‘Colosseums’, which somehow incorporates a marimba seamlessly into the electro-pop groove; ‘Clockwise’, which perhaps has the snakiest synth riff of the lot, biting mischievously at the drums. Generally, though, the individual tunes don’t stand out as well as the overall consistency of playful sound, which is the main reason that you’ll want to return to the album.

The words are the main flaw here. Newman sometimes creates a likeable impression as a lyricist, one who is honest enough to admit ‘I only play for money, honey’ and manages to talk about his battles with depression in revealing terms (on the title track). But if the overall concept is how to write, perform and tour in a successful band, whilst pushing all personal demons aside, then it only occasionally piques any interest in the lifestyle. Ultimately, a touring band is closed off from the rest of the world, and it shows here.

As mentioned before though, the main reason you’ll want to spin Whiteout Conditions is the fast-paced, optimistic noise it offers up to soothe your soul. It manages to avoid Krautrock pastiche through sheer enthusiasm and vigour, which is as admirable an achievement as any I’ve witnessed in pop music all year.

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