One of my favorite bands of the last 10 or so years has been the New Pornographers. Every album they’ve released has been a shining jewel of indie pop perfection. Their latest, Whiteout Conditions was released just recently. So what’s my verdict?
Whiteout Conditions is the seventh album from this supergroup. It continues the explorations in synth pop and the neon aesthetic that Brill Bruisers, their previous album, started. Overall it works, although there is a certain sameness to the tracks in a way.
It might have helped to have had a track or two by Dan Bejar of Destroyer to break up the sequence. I’ve read different but not necessarily conflicting stories, where AC Newman said that the songs on this album were all around the same beats per minute, but any songs Bejar had didn’t fit that, so Bejar offered to bow out for this album. There was also the simple notion that there was a scheduling conflict. It’s a shame, because Bejar usually contributes at least one great song if not more to each New Pornographers album. Brill Bruisers had the amazing “War on the East Coast”, for example. AC Newman, who writes all the songs here, is fantastic at crafting pop songs, but it seems like this album would have benefitted to have something a bit different to change the flow of the album. It’s front packed, with the first 4 tracks easily single-worthy, and the rest of the album good but not quite New Pornographers great. Also, most of the contributions of Neko Case are at the front of the album, which isn’t the best, as Neko is fantastic and needs to be on more of the tracks. And since the tracks are all synth-powered and about the same BPM, and where the synth line starts (with apparently whatever preset Newman started with) and then the drums and other instruments kick in, there is a sameness that sets in after awhile.
(Now that I’ve been listening to the album a lot more lately, I’m going to dispute myself from a week or two ago here. This is a great album overall and while the second half lags a bit, it holds together well. Not their absolute best album, but even if it was the worst New Pornographers album, that means it’s a lot better than a hell of a lot of music out today.)
One thing that the New Pornographers albums all have in common are a powerful uptempo opening track and a strong finale, as well as great flow to the record as a whole. In fact, for most of their albums, I have trouble remembering song titles, beyond knowing “it’s on that one album, near the end,” or wherever.
In other words, for the most part, NP albums are all killer and no filler.
This one isn’t quite as good in that department, but it opens well and closes well, and there are some great tracks on here. I recommend listening in the car or with a good pair of headphones.
I won’t go through all the tracks, but a few highlights.
“Play Money” is an excellent opener that uses Neko very well. “For a fee I’ll fight any foe/For a fee I’ll stop any show” is a great standout line. (The link is to a live version with Kathryn Calder on lead vocals. Not quite as awesome as Neko, but still pretty damn good.)
The title track “Whiteout Conditions” is about the way depression keeps you from doing any damn thing. “Only want to get to work/but every morning I’m too sick to drive/suffering whiteout conditions/forget the mission just get out alive/…suffering whiteout conditions/forget your mission just get out somehow”. Neko on background vocals works so well, as usual.
“High Ticket Attractions” is a peppy, uptempo track about the way the world’s ending, it sounds like. Maybe the video actually is fitting, as I thought it was out of synch with the message. It seemed more like an adaptation of Deadly Class or Morning Glories instead of a video for this song. “The Magna Carta/it’s underwater/we left it there for the sons and the daughters/one day they’ll find it/and be reminded/when we live undersea like we ought to” and “so pack a small suitcase/anything else can be easily replaced” are fantastic lines. Neko (?) and Kathryn Calder (?) on the lead female vocals? I’m not sure, Calder is an amazing vocal chameleon who can fill in for Neko fairly well when she’s not around, so I’m not always sure who’s who when the tracks are playing and the liner notes are less than helpful.
“This is the World of the Theater” has Neko on lead vocals, with the mysterious lines “is it too late to live in your heart/too late to burn all your civilian clothes?” As well as the recurring line of “conquerors of the daybreak”. As usual, the New Pornographers use their vocal harmonies to create magic.
“Second Sleep” has amazing vocal effects at start and is a very synthy track.
“Colosseums” has echoy vocals and drums, along with “Caribbean” drums/xylophone. “Say it like a soothsayer” seems to be a deliberate self-challenge to the slight lisp that AC has.
“We’ve Been Here Before” has more echoy vocals, as well as shimmery synths, and the mystical lines “there were rules once back when/there should be rules again”.
“Avalanche Alley” is a great closing track per usual with the New Pornographers. It’s a synth line with acoustic guitar and then in comes driving drums, either drumsticks or wood blocks. It’s a retro-futuristic sound that is reflected in the lines “news from the lost world/news from the future”. Also, Neko’s on this one too.
Overall, this is a good follow up to Brill Bruisers, continuing with the synth-ier sound of that album and doing some interesting things with sounds. New Pornographers can change things up but still sound like New Pornographers, and while this is good stuff, I look forward to seeing what other directions they might head into in the future.