Review: The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions

It’s easy enough to describe the New Pornographers’ music. Over the course of six studio albums released in just under a decade and a half, the band has created an incredibly distinctive style of upbeat indie rock filled with pop hooks and singalong choruses.

Pinning them down is something else entirely. The New Pornographers are sometimes referred to as a “supergroup,” which is a term they’re is ambivalent about.  On one hand it’s fairly apt, as a “supergroup” usually refers to a band whose members are already famous for an established musical project, and three members of the New Pornographers fit this bill: Neko Case is a well-known alt-country singer-songwriter, Dan Bejar is the prolific frontman of Destroyer, and A.C. Newman was the frontman of 90s band Zumpano and now releases music under his own name. On the other hand, most supergroups either release a single album (sometimes as a cash grab) or are otherwise short-lived. The New Pornographers have not only been around since 2000, but it’s also anyone’s guess as to whether Case, Bejar, and Newman are now known more for their individual projects or as the three lead singers of the New Pornographers.

The seventh New Pornographers album Whiteout Conditions marks a watershed moment for the group, as it’s their first release by Concord Music Group instead of Matador, their first after drummer Kurt Dahle left the band, as well as their first without Bejar; true to the aforementioned supergroup description, he was too busy working on the next Destroyer album.

Both absences are fairly noticeable in their own way. Dahle had previously given us pounding drum solos like those heard on Electric Version’s title track, while his replacement Joe Seiders seems a little more even-handed. Bejar meanwhile had always been a peculiar presence in the New Pornographers. If you’ve never listened to Destroyer (which you should definitely do since their last couple of albums have been phenomenal), realize that the name is a total misnomer and the band has recently been known for making sophisticated jazz rock wherein Bejar breathily sings cryptic verses. This is in contrast to the New Pornographers, where his distinctive nasal tones over radio-friendly riffs give him an almost cartoonish quality. Yet he’s also the most dynamic member of the band, as evidenced by the difference between the peppy brightness of “War on the East Coast” and the subdued intrigue of “Spyder” on 2014’s Brill Brusiers. His absence means that Whiteout Conditions is a little more uniform than the band’s previous releases, and his ingenuity would certainly have been an asset to the album.

That said, the New Pornographers certainly hold their own on Whiteout Conditions, and show they can readily adapt to any major changes. At first listen, it doesn’t sound that much different from Brill Brusiers, and builds off the synthpop that had been edging its way into their pop rock.  For instance, the first single “High Ticket Conditions” sounds quite a bit like the Brill Bruisers single “Dancehall Domine,” as Newman trades off vocals with singer and keyboard player Kathryn Calder.

 

Whiteout Conditions is certainly the product of a band who have mastered their particular sound, yet repeat listens reveal that the New Pornographers are still capable of surprises after seven albums. The title track might be one of their best to date, combining Arcade Fire-esque guitar strumming and 80s-sounding synthesizers. Newman sings the verses, telling of a depressive episode where he laments “such a waste of a beautiful day,” while Case and Calder join for a chorus that reminds him “forget your mission, just get out somehow.” The album also contains some excellent Case-fronted tracks, including the opener “Play Money” and “This is the World of the Theater,” which asks the perplexing question “is it too late to live in your heart, too late to burn all your civilian clothes?” But perhaps most surprising of all is the album’s mellowest moment, “We’ve Been Here Before.” On this track, Newan, Case, and Calder all share vocals duties, often singing in unison, over sparse instrumentation that only consists of swirling synthesizers and scattered guitar riffs. Coincidentally, “we’ve been here before” is not something you’ll think when listening to Whiteout Conditions, largely thanks to impressive moments like these.

That Whiteout Conditions fits so nicely into the New Pornographers’ discography is both a blessing and a curse. It’s easy enough to point out its similarities to previous releases, and there is a sameness to many of its tracks – “Darling Shade” and “Juke” for example blend in a little too well. Yet as far as bands getting too repetitive, the New Pornographers could be doing a lot worse, and the excellence of all of their previous albums raises the question, “why mess with perfection?” Whiteout Conditions is the result of a band that clearly knows its strengths, is still willing to pitch a few curveballs our way, and is able to prosper after major shifts.

Rating: 8/10