by Preston Radtke
After the unparalleled success of 2014’s Brill Bruisers and the ominous silence that followed, few people expected to hear much from Canadian supergroup New Pornographers in 2017. Six albums in, three years seemed like the midpoint of a prolonged gap between releases. However, on January 26, to universal surprise, the New Pornographers announced the release of their seventh project, Whiteout Conditions. Whiteout Conditions finds the band sticking to their youth-centered indie pop rock, splashed with synths and baroque pop-inspired piano sections. The record however is noticeably less quirky and free-spirited than previous New Pornographers material. Furthermore, the group delves deeper into the usage of synthetics and nontraditional harmonies.
Vocals: The New Pornographers and Neko
Twenty years in and the prominence of Neko Case in the band is still slightly perplexing. Neko Case has garnered much acclaim and accolades in her solo career, which has been . A solo career built singularly on dreamy to moody folk rock. Her solo vocal performances feature much more intimate and gentle vocals. Of course, her performance with the New Pornographers is anything but. Her vocals have allowed the New Pornographers to execute crafting accessible, dance-ready, long-range indie pop anthems that have become favorites of fans of all ages. Whiteout Conditions is no different: “This Is the World of the Theater” and the lead single “High Ticket Attractions” find Case at her vocal peak, both navigating the pieces through high vocal skies and serving as the more high-pitched echo of co-vocalist A.C. Newman. “Colosseums” is one of the rare instances in the band’s history where Case’s solo work blatantly overlaps with her band work. The song features many of the same melodic, inflection-driven motifs that Case utilizes outside of the band. A.C. Newman needs mention here only for the fact that his contributions serve as perfect accompaniment and foreshadowing for Case. Newman’s delivery has changed minimally since the band was founded in 1997; he still very sparingly sings without the backing of Case, and his vocal risks are completely nonexistent. If you were looking for Newman to climb the vocal ladder and add a new element to the band through male-fronted vocal peaking, then Newman unfortunately does not come through. That being said, Newman has never taken any vocal adventures, instead serving as the middle ground and vocal straight man to Neko’s aggression and vocalic acrobatics.
Mood: Fun not always guaranteed
The New Pornographers have formed their aesthetic on quirkiness and inherent kitsch. Songs like “The Laws Have Changed” and “Sing Me Spanish Techno” have allowed the band to emulate a certain universal energy while poking fun at other outfits who try to be deep and “meaningful.” There are certainly elements of spunk and finger pointing on Whiteout Conditions, but the album as a whole takes on a more measured and suburban sound. “Whiteout Conditions” and “Play Money” are works that focus more on meticulous harmonic progressions and drum interplay and less on all-inclusive choruses and vocal juxtapositions. “Play Money” starts out sounding like a cut off of Mass Romantic through use of rhythmic and lyrical progression. The song keeps building and building upon itself, adding more layered drum interplays and vocal repetition. Previous New Pornographers encounters have trained the listener to expect either a loosely controlled, chaotic chorus or a resolutionary climax at the conclusion featuring Newman/Case/Bejar minstrelizations, teamed guitars, and obnoxious percussives. However, “Play Money” never reaches any pronounced chorus or climax; the listener instead keeps waiting, and anticipating. The song is essentially a bridge to nowhere. Though shocking in its style, “Play Money” features some of the most artfully crafted harmonies and melodies found on any New Pornographers release. The song is a perfect balance of energy and experimentation for the band.
Synthetics: The true Electric Version
Brill Bruisers left a deep impression on the band. The 2014 album was the band’s first record that featured prominent synthetics and keyboards. These innovations allowed the group to become more accessible and dynamic. Whiteout Conditions pushes the electric envelope even further. “We’ve Been Here Before”, “Juke”, and “Clockwise” are electronic-leaning explorations of the band’s more experimental constructs. The pieces feature traditional choruses, but they also feature much distortion, reverb, and obvious synthetic constructs. The usage of electronic instrumentation has also allowed the band to utilize elements of baroque pop, and even prog rock.
Guitarist/vocalist Dan Bejar does not appear on this album, as the writing conflicted with a Destroyer album he was working on. Case stated that though Bejar isn’t on Whiteout Conditions, he will still contribute to future New Pornographers content.
“High Ticket Attractions”
Also in the Whiteout Conditions Family:
The Decemberists: The King is Dead
Sloan: Never Hear the End of It
All images from The Current
The New Pornographers have changed minimally since their celebrated debut Mass Romantic. Case’s and Newman’s vocals are even more in-tune and complementary of each other on the band’s seventh album. Whiteout Conditions is an efficient document of Case’s slightly ferocious and boundary-pushing vocalizations and Newman’s steady and sobering reinforcements. 8.5
The mood of this album is both artful and slightly disarraying. Whiteout Conditions is a result of a more harmony-focused and less chorus-driven idea for the band. The relative down tempo on this record is an almost welcome change but also a slightly awkward and perplexing presence. 7
The synthetic feel of Whiteout Conditions is a commercial and artful breakthrough. The electric feel of the record uncovers more layers and creative pillars of the band not found on other albums. Furthermore, the synthetic presence on Whiteout Conditions finds the band straying closer and closer to the pop rock genre. Whiteout Conditions is the most accessible album for a band full of accessible albums, and that is mainly a result of greater synthetics. 8.5
Preston is a Emerging Media and Design major. His favorite things include: Seinfeld, The band Sleater-Kinney, Denim jackets, and traveling. When I’m not writing for Byte, he’s working on his thesis dealing with Transmedia in music marketing, working on his very amateur novel, and spending way too much money on restaurants.