Casey Dienel’s solo career was a short one, but it was successful. The Wind-up Canary, the only album released under her own name, was a vibrant and accomplished record for a young singer-songwriter. She was just 20 when she released that record and, now 22, she is apparently wise beyond her years. She has moved on to her new project, White Hinterland. She knew, somehow, that while her solo record was full of catchy and affecting songs, that it also felt a little too contained. That her dynamic piano playing and rollicking narratives needed a bigger sonic palate, and more players to fully bring them to life. And, with a little help from friends, she has done exactly that with Phylactery Factor.
The difference between this record and Dienel’s solo album is immediately apparent. Where the first record put her vocals right up front, this album drops them in the mix and lets the listener hear the many layers of the song. There are horns and strings and vibraphones and a variety of other musical miscellany that inhabit these songs, and it makes for a richer, jazzier sound than The Wind-up Canary. But, it does take Dienel and company a little white to settle in. The opening track, “The Destruction of the Art Deco House” immediately establishes the album’s sound and mood, all blue light and smoke and shuffle. You can almost hear glasses of whiskey clinking together far-off in the back of the room. But the mix buries Dienel’s vocals, so much so that you can hardly make out a word she is saying. That’s too bad because, as the rest of the album indicates, she can write a damn song.
Luckily, the set back is a temporary one, as Dienel and producer Adam Selzer get it right from there on out. The mix rights itself and finds a balance between the intricate instrumentation and Dienel’s high vocal curl. “Dreaming of the Plum Trees” is a bouncy number, where Dienel’s narrator listens to the upstairs neighbors christen their new bed, and imagines a scene in which their relationship ends badly, even violently. She imagines a life of privilege for the people she envies, and sings of her own situation, “We were dreaming of making ends meet.”
It is so often in the way the people in Dienel’s songs perceive others that make her narratives work. “Hometown Hooray” is another up-tempo number, but its an energy that rings purposefully hollow, as it becomes a song about a town trying to justify a young soldier’s death. There are ribbons tied around trees that, eventually, the narrator tears down and burns. The shift, from sad memory to angry frustration, is a subtle one in the track, and it is a surprise Dienel keeps from us until the last verse and the whole song turns on that moment. No longer is the narrator outside of this naive city, hoping to find meaning in death. Instead, her own personal anguish comes out, and the destruction of these symbols coupled with the chorus—which ends “No one wants to believe you died in vain”—that make her conflict so clear. In the end, “no one” surely includes her.
That song, like the rest of the record, allows itself to stretch. These songs are often luxuriant and spacious, and it is a space that Dienel takes full advantage of. Even the quieter, more solo numbers like “Calliope” or closer “Vessels” take up much more space than any of Dienel’s older ballads, and they still make sparse use of other players. Rachel Blumberg, former Decemberist and current player in Norfolk & Western along with Adam Selzer, plays all the percussion on the album. And it is her intricate, and often muted, playing that syncs up so well with Dienel’s piano. Combine their two talents with a slew of other players, including beautiful backing vocals by Laura Gibson, and you’ve got a brilliant confluence of talented artists.
Phylactery Factory, and the move to White Hinterland, is a huge step forward for Casey Dienel. As a 20-year-old singer a couple of years ago, she showed promise with her first record. Here, by making the move to full band at the right time, she has fulfilled a good deal of that promise much earlier than anyone expected. This is a confident, well-executed, endlessly beautiful record. And if the growth from this album to the next is even half as big as the growth we’ve already seen from Casey Dienel, well, watch out.