In 2006 Casey Dienel, singer-songwriter, released her debut album Wind-Up Canary, a collection of piano-based, occasionally old-timey, somewhat Joni Mitchell-ish, clever, whimsical, relatively straightforward pop/folk songs. A couple years later, Dienel wiped away that direction, subsumed it into White Hinterland, a group that put a purposely ‘artistic’ spin on it, threw in overt attempts at R&B (presaging the current trend) and a vaguely world-music-in the-future vibe (a teaspoon of Animal Collective). The music sometimes captured a very unique feeling, and sometimes seemed scattershot. As a fan of her ‘solo’ work, at the time I sometimes wondered what she was running away from.
A few records and some tours later, on their third LP Baby, White Hinterland sound more comfortable in their own skin, like their approach has coalesced into something specific. In part, that’s by getting the tendencies of Dienel’s debut album back in the mix. On the fourth track, “David”, Dienel heads back to the piano for a six-minute emotional tour de force. The album also begins and ends with piano songs, though both twist and turn and tweak the format a little more than “David” does.
There’s unity and clarity of purpose on “David” that’s fighting against both the most sentimental aspects of her debut and the occasional clutter of White Hinterland’s other work. The same is true of a handful of disparate-sounding songs throughout Baby. “Ring the Bell” might be a bit overtly trying to walk a line between Bjork and Beyonce, but it’s also the album’s strongest pop moment, with a confident glide. “White Noise” is purposeful cacophony, a mess but knowingly so, aware of being a mess.
The title track is an atmospheric ballad that gets wrapped up in its own anger. It’s a kiss-off to a lover, and so to an extent is the album overall. There’s a pulse of anger throughout the whole affair. It carries many of the songs, even when you don’t realize it at first.
“Metronome” is the weakest of the kiss-offs, designed like a Prince song but she can’t carry it. Songwriting-wise, it wouldn’t have made it on even the weaker ’90s or ’00s Prince albums (not an uncommon problem for Pitchfork-endorsed R&B/indie hybrids, really). That said, the drums crashing in at the end feel awesome – which is probably the whole point. And part of the point of White Hinterland, even; the reason for messing around with different styles and approaches.
Tracks like “No Devotion” work for that; the creepy feeling, the interesting sounds. White Hinterland’s whole existence seems to be balancing conflicting interests: to be abstract/direct, about feelings/ideas, of genre/not tied to any genre. You can hear that conflict in their sound. It is their sound.