Often referred to as a supergroup, the Canadian band The New Pornographers are not so much a supergroup as a collective of gifted artists who formed in the late 90’s to make arresting music. The band released their seventh studio album “Whiteout Conditions” on April 7th. “Whiteout Conditions” is the follow up to the critically hailed 2004 “Brill Bruisers”; with the latest release continuing the metamorphosis started with the 2014 release. The emphasis on “Whiteout Conditions” is placed on cohesiveness rather than a collection of singular presentations by each of the band’s many lead front persons. The album is in parts a paean to sounds found in the 80’s and 90’s and a commitment to a faster tempo on the sonics.
The band formed in 1997 in British Colombia and all the founding members were prominent in the Vancouver music scene of the time. The band has always been mentioned in the same breath as Canadian bands Arcade Fire and The Dears all whom represent the creative Canadian musical wave that arrived in the early 2000’s. Stylistically the have been grouped with bands such as Bon Iver and The Decembrists sharing in common an off kilter Indie ethos. Since 2014 the band has seen some big changes, Dan Bejar has moved on to his widely acclaimed new effort as Destroyer. Also departing the band was their long time drummer Kurt Dahle. The band still hails a Rota of gifted performers, Neko Case, Carl Newman, the focal point and creative power of the band, Kathryn Calder, Todd Fancey, Blaine Thurier, John Collins and new drummer Joe Seiders. Newman has stated that on “Whiteout Conditions” the goal was to present a modern day indie rock Mamas and Papas. The band accomplishes this feat by taking full advantage of their amazing vocal versatility and their worthy musical skills.
The album begins with the addictive “Play Money” a krautrock Esque track. The song makes many a wry observation about human motivation and that filthy luger called money, “I only play for money”. The song is jaunty and becomes an earworm after only a few plays. The title track “Whiteout Conditions” has a more atmospheric feeling which meshes perfectly with the title. The song addresses depression and what it steals from each person who experiences its dulling ennui. These feelings are expressed in lyrics like “Every morning I want to go to work, I’m too sick to drive” and “what a waste of a beautiful day.” The song builds with an extraordinary percussion into an engaging anthem that will easily translate in live performance to something special. “High Ticket Attractions” continues the momentum built with the first two songs. The sonics and phrasing reminds me a lot of The Shins with a direct immediacy beautifully conveyed. The harmonization is also captivating making for an awesome track that discusses the insanity of the political situation the world finds itself currently enmeshed.
Here politics is characterized as a circus with society racing down the road to oblivion. The track also makes the point that there is no guarantee any civilization will last, with the example given of the demise of the Mayans. Lamented is the fact that the individual citizen intends good but is too often lost in the miasma of distraction. After “High Ticket Attractions” I was brought into the album, unfortunately things went a little off course with the next few songs. “This the World of Theater”, “Darling Shade”, “Second Sleep” and “Coliseums” are not bad songs and have many things to recommend them, but they tend to run together with little distinction. This situation can be best described as “too much of a good thing”. Positive points on the songs are the amazing harmonization and choral like qualities best exemplified on “Coliseums”, which produces goosebumps. Unfortunately the lyrics did not sustain my interest after barnburners like “Play Money, Whiteout Conditions and High Ticket Attractions.” Possibly a bit more variation in the playlist would have worked better. There is definitely a peak and valley structure to the song order. That being said just when I was bracing for disappointment the release came charging back with some real stunners.
“Juke” is a fantastic track with jittery sonics and a fuzzed out guitar. It reminds me a lot of peak Public Image Limited in feel. “Clockwise” again is a brilliant track that takes from Devo, Blondie and 80’s New Wave and producing something off kilter but oh so alluring. Finally “Avalanche Alley” blends an interstellar feel with a breakneck pace that will send you a reel. “Avalanche Alley” is a phenomenally strong finish for the album and well worth the wait.
The New Pornographers have attempted to redefine themselves with “Whiteout Conditions”, and the release for the most part works very well in presented a new formulation of the band. What stands out for any listener familiar with the band is how much quicker the tempo of almost all the songs are, with no standard ballads on offer. It is like the band came to the end of “Brill Bruisers” and decided to double down on the speedy rock tempo elements found on that release. The result of this experiment is a clever and charming release that has a few weak moments. In the end the question becomes whether “Whiteout Conditions” is the dawn of a new direction for the band or a place holder before the band takes off in yet another direction. Only time will tell. If not for the middling four songs I would say The New Pornographers had produced a sure home run with this release. The undeniable quality of the majority of the songs makes “Whiteout Conditions” a worthy listen; not quite a homerun but a solid triple.