Release Date: Apr 7, 2017
Record label: Concord
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
The New Pornographers have spent their career seesawing between two sides of their collective musical personality, contrasting straightforward peppy, poppy records--Mass Romantic (2001), Electric Version (2003) and 2014's Technicolor Brill Bruisers--with melodic, less accessible and at times gratuitously weird LPs (2005's Twin Cinema, Challengers from 2007 and 2010's Together). Whiteout Conditions breaks the tie, unmistakably throwing its lot in with the former group. It's a fitting introduction to spring, a blast of synthesizers and harmony and aural smiles.
Over the course of nearly two decades together, the transient nature of The New Pornographers' lineup has led to a kind of constant state of creative wanderlust; no two of their records have ever really sounded the same and, accordingly, things have never ended up feeling stale at any point. The band's songwriting core of A.C. Newman and Dan Bejar served as its anchor and there was therefore a risk that they might come unmoored with 'Whiteout Conditions', their seventh full-length - it's the first since Dan left the fold to focus full-time on his solo work as Destroyer.
S ince 2014's acclaimed Brill Bruisers, the Vancouver collective have lost founding drummer Kurt Dahle and (at least for now) songwriter Dan Bejar (also of Destroyer) and set up their own label, but the upheaval has simply changed their course slightly, rather than knocking them off it. Now, Carl Newman and Neko Case are singing together at least as much as separately, while new sticksman Joe Seiders brings his own motorik groove and drum machines. Newman has said that they were aiming to be the "Krautrock 5th Dimension", and there's definitely more of the latter in Whiteout Conditions' exuberant pile-up of harmonies, hooks and powerpop.
Calling the New Pornographers' music smart pop almost underestimates the group; there's smart, and then there's these folks, whose cleverness suggests their tunes got their undergrad degree at Yale and did their master's at Harvard. But A.C. Newman and his crew also have a keen understanding of the mind/body conundrum -- they want their music to be as intelligent as they are, but they also want it to feel good.
There was a moment after the New Pornographers released their third album, 2005's Twin Cinema, when it felt like the Vancouver supergroup would spend the rest of their days making album after album of near-perfect power-pop. But the band lost some spark by the time they got to 2007's lifeless Challengers. It didn't fully return for 2010's Together either.
You could be forgiven for having given up on the New Pornographers a few albums back. Though the Vancouver group are consistently fine purveyors of modern power-pop, few bands can sustain their initial burst of creativity into a second decade. Yet the band surprised even their most ardent supporters with 2014's Brill Bruisers, an album that managed to capture the urgency of their earliest releases while tightening the hooks and updating their sound.
With no less than five songwriters among their number (including Destroyer's Dan Bejar and the formidable talents of Neko Case), it's understandable that The New Pornographers have often been considered slightly too eclectic for their own good. Enter Whiteout Conditions: the Vancouver octet's seventh album is their most coherent statement yet. It's also one of their very best.
Carl Newman's songwriting has always been immaculately constructed, and to the point of seeming mechanized. But on 2014's Brill Bruisers and, now, Whiteout Conditions, the New Pornographers's seventh album, it's no longer just Newman's compositions that sound like they were mathematically engineered by a highly intelligent computer program. The band's whole sound has become increasingly artificial-sounding, dominated by whizz-bang electronic bells and whistles and robotic vocal effects.
Coming-of-age movies from the 1980s are joyous, singular quests of the ego. This explains their largely teen viewership--it helps to have archetypes to parse while determining your own identity. It can be comforting to hit the prom by proxy in a Pepto-pink tulle puff, or step into the shoes of a glib slacker as he leads a parade through downtown Chicago; it's means to a self-actualized end.
The New Pornographers' first release on their own Collected Works label and without longtime mainstay Dan Bejar (also of Destroyer), but also with new drummer Joe Seiders as a permanent member, Whiteout Conditions continues very much in the same vein as 2010's Together and 2014's Brill Bruisers. It's also got the introspection and experimentation characteristic of 2007's underrated Challengers, long resigned to leader and songwriter Carl Newman's solo records. A noticeable difference on their recent records is that Blaine Thurier's synths and Kathryn Calder's keyboards are highlighted more in the mix than on any of their early albums, though otherwise one could take most of these tunes, place them on 2003 sophomore album Electric Version as bonus tracks, and not really notice the difference.
Whiteout Conditions finds the New Pornographers with lineup changes for the first time since 2005's Twin Cinema, when Kathryn Calder became a full-fledged member. She started as a touring vocalist to fill in when Neko Case couldn't be with the band and gradually increased her role until she became the band's fourth lead vocalist. But this, the band's seventh album, is its first without longtime drummer Kurt Dahle and founding member Dan Bejar.
Amazingly, The New Pornographers have snuck out seven albums, almost under cover of darkness, their shiny brand of guitar pop never once overbearing, nor overstretching itself either. Interestingly, they're not really dominated by any one member - no mean feat when you consider they still number among their ranks Neko Case, Destroyer's Dan Bejar and A C Newman. Which is really part of the problem with Whiteout Conditions.
There was a moment in the early 2000s when it seemed like all the cool bands came from Canada - Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Death from Above 1979, Tegan and Sara, Islands, and Wolf Parade, among others. Some of these bands never quite recovered from that first burst of acclaim, either going on hiatus, disbanding, or (arguably) losing the plot. Amid these changes, indie veterans The New Pornographers have served as a comforting constant, producing a steady stream of quality albums since their classic 2000 debut, Mass Romantic.
The New Pornographers have always insisted that they aren’t a supergroup, but no one has ever believed them. Between A.C. Newman, Neko Case, Dan Bejar, and a stellar set of supporting players, the band includes some of the finest musical talent Canada has to offer. Their collective résumé is damn impressive, but their chemistry is even more so.