Whiteout Conditions finds the New Pornographers with lineup changes for the first time since 2005’s Twin Cinema, when Kathryn Calder became a full-fledged member. She started as a touring vocalist to fill in when Neko Case couldn’t be with the band and gradually increased her role until she became the band’s fourth lead vocalist. But this, the band’s seventh album, is its first without longtime drummer Kurt Dahle and founding member Dan Bejar.
Bejar hasn’t officially left the group, but this is the first album he hasn’t played on. Not having any of Bejar’s off-kilter songwriting and vocals to break up A.C. Newman’s more straightforward power-pop is going to be an adjustment for listeners. Dahle has always been an ace drummer, but his work with the band over the past few albums has often been deep in the pocket and workmanlike. New drummer Joe Seiders is a little looser in his playing and more willing to call attention to himself, which certainly catches the ear from time to time.
As for the album itself, Whiteout Conditions seems like a natural follow-up to 2014’s Brill Bruisers. That album featured a return to synths after a decade of the band getting increasingly more organic with their sound. This one continues to pile on the synths, to the point where Newman’s statement introducing the album went, “At the beginning of this record, there was some thinking that we wanted it to be like a Krautrock Fifth Dimension. Of course, our mutated idea of what Krautrock is probably doesn’t sound like Krautrock at all. But we were thinking: Let’s try and rock in a different way.” And he’s right in that the record doesn’t really sound like Krautrock, but keyboardist Blaine Thurier (and presumably fellow keyboardist Calder) is certainly working hard this time out.
Opening song “Play Money” is an upbeat, synth-laden rocker with Case on lead vocals, playing a mercenary hero and her refrain, “For a fee I’ll right any wrong / For a fee I’ll fight any foe / For a fee I’ll stop any show” is sublime. It’s a shame, then, that that refrain is followed by a second chorus sung by Newman in falsetto that has far less impact. But the song makes tremendous use of orchestra hits during its extended outro before the band’s vocalists repeat “The song” into a fade out. That’s a reference to an earlier line in the song, but it’s also a reference to one of the band’s first and best-loved singles, “Letter From an Occupant”. That’s a cheeky move, but it also invites a direct comparison, and while “Play Money” is fun, it’s not on the level of “Letter”.
Second song “Whiteout Conditions” opens with a pounding drumbeat complete with a couple of brief but strong fills before the rest of the band comes in. This one is also upbeat, but there’s a brighter synth-pop feel to it. Newman’s verses are nicely contrasted here by Calder and Case harmonizing their way through a very long chorus that lasts as long as the verses. After that, it’s on to the album’s high-powered first single, “High Ticket Attractions”. Like most of the band’s songs, this one is certainly catchy, but it feels really familiar. The trading of lines between Newman and Calder and the flitting of synth figures through the background is almost a direct echo of the Brill Bruisers single, “Dancehall Domine”. That kind of thing is understandable for a band on their seventh album, but the amount of similarity between the songs is distracting.
This is the point on the record where Bejar would usually show up with a palate cleanser. Instead, we get “This is the World of the Theatre”, a slightly subdued track with Case on lead vocals. This one also feels familiar, because it’s more relaxed vibe and backstage lyrical theme resembles another Brill Bruisers track, “Backstairs”. The advantage this song has over its counterpart, however, is that it has a wonderful marriage of great Newman hooks and excellent Case vocals in its refrain.
From there, Whiteout Conditions rolls along like most New Pornographers albums. Newman’s songwriting is typically strong, the band’s arrangements are mostly very good, and the juggling of the three vocalists is wonderful. But the best moments come when Newman changes up his songwriting style a bit. “Second Sleep” opens with the singers all sampled and chopped up into a strange vocal stew before Newman comes in, and the pulsing synths and pounding, tom-heavy drums drive the song instead of the guitars. “We’ve Been Here Before” is the record’s true standout. It features no drums, no bass, and only a smidgen of guitar. Instead, the song uses subtle, fast-moving synth arpeggios accompanied by quiet but lush synth chords to support equally lush, drawn-out singing from all three vocalists. Newman nominally sings the lead, but Case harmonizes with him on maybe 75 percent of the lines, and Calder joins in every time the melody line hits its peak for a three-part harmony that occasionally gives me chills.
“Colosseums” is like many other songs in the New Pornographers oeuvre, but little tweaks give it charm. An acoustic guitar, a sneaky little marimba part, and a cool buzzing bass give the song personality beyond it being just a nice Newman-Case duet. “Clock Wise” has a cool little retro-futuristic sound with its distinctively late ‘70s/early ‘80s synths, but Newman’s typically oblique lyrics are a little too distracting on this one with the strange refrain, “In the valley of lead singers.” Closer “Avalanche Alley”, on the other hand, uses similar synth tones, but marries it to a driving rhythm section. The song essentially halts for the chorus, which serves to highlight the group’s harmonizing again. “News from the lost world / News from the future” is just as oblique as usual, but that’s more intriguing than distracting on this track.
The New Pornographers have been so good for so long that it’s getting hard to avoid trotting out the superlatives every time. The absence of Bejar on Whiteout Conditions is definitely noticeable and takes some getting used to, but the increased reliance on synths is keeping the band from sounding stale, and Joe Seiders’ willingness to play around on his drums certainly helps the beats stand out more this time. Newman, Case, and Calder are wonderful as always and with Newman providing the melodic earworms, Whiteout Conditions is another strong addition to the band’s already excellent discography.