“I am afraid of so many things / but I don’t fear the future”, Casey Dienel sings on the second track of White Hinterland’s second LP, Kairos. The music throughout the album embraces that notion of looking forward without reservations. The future, for Dienel and the group, means exploring and appropriating more styles of music in more ways. In the process, Dienel is moving further away from the one album she released under her own name, 2006’s Wind-Up Canary, a more stripped-down album of eccentric piano-pop.
White Hinterland ‘s first album, 2008’s Phylactery Factory dressed her songs in more elaborate dream-clothes. Kairos adds more layers of sound. Dienel’s songs now come wrapped in pits of reggae, electronic music, and modern R&B. The group is more likely to bring in, for example, a guitar-playing style from African music or the cinematic slow-motion perspective of trip-hop. The stepping stone in between the two albums, the French-language EP Luniculaire, pointed the way towards Kairos, less in the specific style of it than the fuller approach—the way they seem to always be putting layer on top of layer, hoping listeners will both fall for the big sound and be willing to peel back the layers.
To the first album’s wilderness themes, Kairos adds the feeling of sunshine. The first track, “Icarus”, opens slowly and then glimmers, with a light pop melody floating over somewhat of a dub-reggae rhythm. It achieves the impression of opening a door onto a sunny day. Throughout the album are references to light, moon, sun, and mythology.
If this is the sound of the future, it seems not that disassociated from ‘90s trip-hop, but with an outdoor sensibility that can’t help but recall the ‘60s in spirit. Kairos has a “primitive” chanting side here and there, and definitely a lay-back-in-the-sun and chill-out side. There are strong pop melodies, but often those reside in the grooves as much as the singing. Dienel sings with a purposeful sense for the dramatic, without straying too far from the melodies. At times, her singing explicitly evokes Bjork, a touch point that is even more present in the music itself, across most of the album.
The nature affectations; the way the band wraps rather typical pop melodies inside a larger body of sounds; the way the music goes full-on with atmosphere at all times, even if it means covering up what would be rather direct melodies and lyrics, all of these qualities evoke looking-forward in a way not dissimilar to Animal Collective and hordes of other bands that the Pitchfork nation is in love with. Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder whether these musical markings of progress are just today’s version of flying cars and wraparound sunglasses, signs of the “future” that don’t have that much to do with actual innovation.
Piling sounds on top of one another may make the songs feel more “new”, “fresh”, or “exploratory”, but at the end of the day, are the songs themselves that different? Some of the pleasures of Kairos come from the grooves and the surfaces, which can be quite beautiful and lush. Yet just as often, the pleasures are in listening past those, being surprised to find how disarming the lyrics can sometimes be. In a way, White Hinterland’s current musical direction seems like an approach meant to stand-out from the pack that may really just bring them closer to a different pack, disguising some of the basic charms of Dienel’s songwriting. A singer-songwriter with a unique approach stands out within that genre these days more strongly than yet another “mysterious” art-pop collective devouring styles from across genres and decades.
Then again, I have no reason to question the sincerity of White Hinterland’s attempts to find a new way to present their music. While searching, maybe they will stumble across something truly fresh. The more genres they probe and styles they combine, the more likely they are to create music that doesn’t sound so familiar—music that is truly surprising. As Dienel sings on “Begin Again”, “there is so much that I’m after”.