Friday, February 16, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1106: The New Pornographers

I saw the tour supporting this next album last September, but because I didn’t have the album yet I didn’t have a review to pair the experience with. As it happens I found the show just OK, but how will it compare the studio album? Let’s find out!

Disc 1106 is… Whiteout Conditions
Artist: The New Pornographers

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? I dig this cover because I like stuff in silhouette (I even like the word ‘silhouette’) and I like old school neon, and this cover has plenty of both. By the way, that cool silhouette on the right is also the coolest member of the band – Neko Case. Sorry, rest of band, but my heart is with Neko.

How I Came To Know It: I found out about the New Pornographers after reading a review of the album “Challengers.” I then checked out their whole discography (as I do) and discovered I liked about a third of it.

Whenever I can, I like to scope out an entire album on either Youtube or Bandcamp before I buy it. In the case of “Whiteout Conditions” I pulled the trigger a little early, after having only heard three songs. I liked those three, so I bought it and hoped for the best.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 3 of the New Pornographers 7 albums. Of those three, “Whiteout Conditions” is a distant third.

Ratings: 3 stars

Based on the songs I’d heard I knew “Whiteout Conditions” was going to be the more pop incarnation of the New Pornographers. I prefer their folksy side, but I took a chance that everything would be as good as my limited sampling. Unfortunately, by the time I was through three listens, I’ve found little that inspired me past the initial sampling.

Things start off strong with “Play Money” which has a groovy futuristic synthesizer sound grounded in Neko Case’s powerhouse vocals. Case is a natural star that elevates everything she does.

This is the first of four solid tracks, followed by the title track which is a compelling song about mental illness and the drugs people take to control it. It is a bit packed with production (more on that later) but here the resulting fuzz helps underscore the dulled feelings that mood inhibitors generate.

At its best the album has a techno-edged New Wave feel that had me thinking of Nick Gilder’s work in the early eighties crossed with the new disco grooves of Broken Bells. There is a lot of synth, a lot of sound effects and a lot of restless energy.

New Pornographers has seven members which is OK if you are a Ska band and need a horn section, but for pop music tends to be a little busy. The intricate layers that I could handle early on quickly started to wear on me, becoming a bunch of artificial beeps bouncing around, not giving me a chance to let the song soak in a bit.

The album is aiming for an insistent, rising energy but the way the songs circle around themselves and bang away in front of the beat caused me to get bored and a little anxious. As things progressed I increasingly started to lose the buried melody in the face of too much banging, crashing, an excessive repetition of phrases and general art-house busy-ness

Case in point is “Second Sleep” a song that explores having difficulty sleeping. It does a good job of recreating that dull over-stimulated ache you get in your brain. However, it isn’t pleasant and I’m not sure it revealed anything new to me about the experience.

In places, “Whiteout Conditions” felt a bit like the pop equivalent of experimental jazz. It wouldn’t surprise me if the New Pornographers like that comparison, but I just don’t dig experimental jazz.

There isn’t anything bad about this album – in fact it is quite good – it is just a matter of preference. Sometimes a good album just doesn’t suit your personal tastes, and this is one of those times. Knowing how much more I enjoy the other two New Pornographers albums in my collection, “Whiteout Conditions” isn’t ever going to be able to work its way into the rotation, post-Odyssey. Rather than have it languish in neglect, I’ll pass it along to a home that will appreciate it better than I do.

Best tracks: Play Money, Whiteout Conditions, High Ticket Attractions, This is the World of the Theater

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