White Hinterland - Baby

by Jack Reid

White Hinterland’s new album, the third she’s produced under that name after a stint as Casey Dienel, the twee ukulele popstress, is crap overall. Let me expand upon that assertion to sound a little more professional.

Ms. Dienel’s first efforts under her own name were simple three chord progression affairs that were, if not exactly groundbreaking, pleasant at least. Think Ingrid Michaelson meets Birdy. It seems that after the release of Wind-Up Canary, she felt a draw to the edgy side of things, a desire to be something far too art-pop to be performed under her own name. White Hinterland was born. Phylactery Factory, the first release under the new moniker, retained much of that ukulele-starshine charm, but introduced some influences like Cat Power’s dark ballads and Regina Spektor’s vocal acrobatics.

Next came Kairos, where it all started to go a little bit wrong. Casey introduced some poorly wielded new toys, poorly executed synth elements, and vocals that seemed (surely?) to be out of tune on purpose. Perhaps the Cosmic Owl visited Casey in her sleep sometime in 2009, and told her that her next album must be an expression of the psychedelic link between all of the plants on the Earth and the birds in the sky. That’s the only explanation I can think of for such a monumental dropping of the ball.

Unfortunately, Baby is more of the same. My hopes were raised when I heard the first single from the LP, Ring The Bell. It’s a pretty catchy synth-pop tune with manic but interesting instrumentation and some fairly solid vocals. It seemed for a moment that White Hinterland had reined in the crazy in favour of something more compelling. The lyrics walk the line between the abstract and the impactful wonderfully, combining with the instrumental to form a kind of ecstatic plea. It’s a nice effect, so it makes me wonder what the hell happened to the rest of the album. Wait Until Dark opens the album up with something only a little more tuneful than a spoken word poem, with each syllable assigned a random pitch. There are moments where Casey sounds completely out of tune, painfully so. Bizarre.

No Devotion takes some of the electronic elements from Kairos that were tempered well in Ring The Bell, and lets them fall utterly flat. These noises and textures, however interesting, need some kind of ordering logic for them to be at all enjoyable, and there certainly isn’t one here. At other times, the instrumental fades into the background enough to let us make sense of Casey’s vocals. On White Noise for instance, the beat is simple enough to follow the vocal melody, which is consistently poorly delivered. When I heard the brass section come in at the chorus, I couldn’t help but think I would really like this song if only the vocals were performed by St. Vincent (see Who by St. Vincent and David Byrne). Again on Metronome, the instrumental is nice and simple and the melody is pretty good pop fodder, but Casey’s vocals are just annoying.

After a typically silly set of noises at the introduction, David is rather reminiscent of White Hinterland’s earlier albums, and it’s a relief. Being a simple piano ballad, there isn’t too much complexity clashing to let the song down. The vocals carry some lovely sadness, and the vocal harmonies in the refrain complement, rather than obstinately chime in with, spurious pitches (as happens elsewhere on the release). I am especially thankful for David, whoever he is, because he inspired the only song on the album other than the single that is enjoyable to listen to. I’m sick of picking up albums and realising that yes, the artist really did only come up with one good song and had a bit of an episode whilst producing the rest of the release.

So, White Hinterland is certainly powering on with these unsuccessful experiments in Kate Bush-y (but nowhere near as good as her), Bjork-y (again, doesn’t hold a candle) silliness. However, in amongst the mess, she left in one track that hints at a more pleasant future in synth-pop, Ring The Bell. She also left in something that hearkens back to the glory days of Phylactery Factory, when she was no longer twee, but not yet pretentious and ill-executed, David.