Monday, July 10, 2017

album review: 'whiteout conditions' by the new pornographers

So I've talked a little about supergroups before, the music fan's dream collaborations that more often than not never quite live up to expectations... but of course, it's not always like that, and considering how much I tend to champion Canadian music, it's a damn tragedy it has taken me so long to get to this group.

So, The New Pornographers. Born out the Vancouver indie rock scene around the turn of the millennium, many of the members had prominent roles in their own groups before coming together for this, and looking back now it's almost a little astounding how well it turned out. Carl Newman was widely held as the primary songwriter and band 'leader', but when you surround him with acts that would become songwriting powerhouses in their own right like Neko Case and Dan Bejar of Destroyer and a host of other 90s Canadian indie veterans, the lineup was almost too good to fail.

And sure enough, for the first half of the 2000s The New Pornographers made some of the catchiest and most infectious power pop and indie rock you'd hear, getting a ton of well-deserved critical acclaim. Yes, things did slip with Challengers and Together, but they were able to yank things back in line with Brill Bruisers in 2014, a record I really wish I could have covered three years ago, cranking up the synthesizer lines and creating a project that didn't quite feel as backwards looking or indulgent as earlier record could occasionally feel. And while I was excited to hear they were going to push further down that new wave path on Whiteout Conditions, I'm not going to deny I was concerned to hear that Dan Bejar didn't contribute to it. Apparently he's been hard at work on the next Destroyer project, but in terms of songwriting - and this is no disrespect to Newman - but Bejar is in a class of his own, and I was concerned what his absence could mean for the new album. But hey, it was bound to be energetic and fun, right, even if I am months late to the punch, so what did we get with Whiteout Conditions?

Honestly, while I do like Whiteout Conditions and think it's a solid enough release, I'm also not going to deny that I do feel a little distant from it - comfortable in calling it a good record thanks to a few infectious choruses and the solid chemistry that's held forth for the supergroup for years now, but missing Dan Bejar and through the choices of themes, it's hard not to feel like The New Pornographers aren't manufacturing at least some distance from their audience and a core sound that flies in the face of that.

But okay, before we get to all of that, we need to talk about the core of the group - and yes, while I miss the weirder flights of fancy from Bejar's writing, the interweaving vocal harmonies and melodic grooves are still here, all at the faster BPM that make The New Pornographers stand out against the rest of modern indie rock that draws on slick mid-80s new wave tones. And this album does so more than most - the percussion is more programmed - although there's nearly always real drums and it's never obtrusive - the synths have the same sort of chill swell that touched that era, the bass grooves are here but not as choppy as the early years of new wave, and especially when you get tones like the broad color of the main guitars on 'High Ticket Attractions' or the gentle fizz behind 'Darling Shade', it's pretty obvious. But the technocolor tones and especially the fast beats also call to mind the dance-inflected electronic rock near the turn of the millennium, especially with the choppy vocal layering on 'Second Sleep', the inflection of brighter acoustic against the grinding bass of 'Colosseums', the warping shifts in the guitar around 'Clockwise', the main acoustic grooves behind 'Avalanche Alley', or especially that echoing vocal effect on 'Juke' that honestly probably tested my patience the most on this record. And look, when this record hits a truly golden hook - the title track and the ballad 'We've Been Here Before' are by far the best, although there are several that stick with you - but there's a part of me that feels like the slick polish is taking away some of that ramshackle momentum that has always been a great selling point for The New Pornographers, and it's not like these tones are not well-trod ground by this point, especially as despite the guitars having some jangling presence, they don't quite have the same bruising muscle or power.

But of course that polish is part of the point, and that means we're going to have to get into the content. As always, New Pornographers' songs are a little tough to decode, but here you can almost tell that the band is intentionally not making it easy for the audience, with a few references that fans will get but some lines almost coming across as closed loops, almost a bit standoffish. And right from the very first song 'Play Money' it can almost come across as cynical, not quite going through the motions or weary but almost calculated or mercenary - when previously members of the band have described The New Pornographers as a vacation project, why does it now seem to sound like work? But then you quickly realize that detachment and artifice isn't just a feature, it's the thematic core of this record - industry veterans staring out at the landscape where the earnestness isn't quite there and sometimes you need to take a step back if only to stay sane. And of course they aren't just referring to themselves - 'High Ticket Attractions' might be the most overt reference to anxiety in the wake of an upcoming election, but then you have 'Darling Shade', which has a sardonic contempt for mainstream media's fumbling and enabling of populist movements that get out of control, or 'This Is The World Of The Theater', which is all about that manufactured image and how little power it ultimately has. They don't deny the comfort in such a veneer - 'Colosseums' and 'Second Sleep' are explicitly about how said deflections can provide some peace of mind for the ego at least - but they're also smart enough in the final third of the record to peel things back and show that sort of projected ego on 'Clockwise' can lead to overcompensation, and on 'Avalanche Alley' it shows just how useless it all is in the face of real problems that need to be addressed before it's too late, especially if you've all been here before and couldn't find the solution last time.

So on some level, yeah, it's a pretty damn cynical record, and the sort that doesn't hesitate at all to include themselves in the framing, which can make for a harrowing listen if you've already been overthinking about the blend of projected self-image and artifice in the weirdness of modern life - I may have been watching and overthinking too much vlog content over the past few days, I ranted on Twitter about it. And really, The New Pornographers are perfectly poised to make this sort of detached commentary, especially as a Canadian group looking south and yet all the more conscious of what could happen up here. But this is where the writing hits execution and tone, because while the late 90s did have some self-conscious veneer of ironic detachment in this style of indie rock, the other tones pulled from the mid-80s didn't. In terms of socially aware or political music, this album might have power and precision after you decode it - but the fact you have to decode it and it still feels as guarded can be a weird juxtaposition with the established tones, and it really doesn't help it feel populist, which given the big sing-along hooks The New Pornographers have, can feel even more discombobulating. Maybe that's the root of why I'm not connecting with this more: an album intended to step back and detach for a moment of respite, conscious that eventually you'll need to rejoin the fray when the veneers collapse, and it just succeeds too well and mutes emotional response.

Or maybe I'm just overthinking all of this and it's a merely pretty good New Pornographers record where I was hoping for greatness, I dunno. Anyway, I did like this, but I do find myself wishing I liked it more. I appreciate the big ideas at its core and again, The New Pornographers write ridiculously catchy hooks, but I don't think this is a set of their best, and Dan Bejar not being here does mean that added spark of weirdness and emotional heft doesn't quite pass through. As such, I'm thinking a light 7/10 and a recommendation, but it's not their best, and I recommend checking out their early-to-mid 2000s work first if you really want to get a handle on this group at their best. In the mean time, though... again, I'm really late to this one, but I can't deny there's a lot to like about this project, so check it out.

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