47:01 min • Dead Oceans • April 1, 2014
John Preston reviews
The first and last tracks on the third album by US female singer-songwriter White Hinterland act as a misleading, but appropriate, prelude and postscript to the bulk of Baby. Misleading, with the exception of the downcast ‘David’, because the tracks do not resemble the songs that they bookend in musical style at all. Album opener ‘Wait Until Dark’ is tense and paranoid. Unaccompanied vocals are finally joined by a lone, dominant piano, which seem to circle the neighbourhood “block” referred to in the song’s lyrics. It’s a dramatic and attention-seeking opening and shows how far Casey Diesel has come as a performer since White Hinterland’s debut in 2008; she sounds fantastic. The last track, ‘Live With You’, again featuring just piano and vocals, sees some sort of resolution and tells of domesticity and a realisation of love. It’s warm and inhabits the soulful world of Laura Nyro or Carole King. So what of the remaining 80 per cent?
‘Dry Mind’ opens with heavenly voices, fractured bouncing vocal samples and a thick, mid tempo beat. More elements are introduced – further vocal loops, cut and reversed electronics with a melody and rhythm that are more in keeping with indie R&B as opposed to the more straightforward Kate Bush art-rock that introduces the album. ‘Ring The Bell’ continues with these big, busy extrovert musical themes and brings some gorgeous brass along with it. Diesel soars high above the whole thing and just about manages to take control of what teeters on the edge of chaos. These tracks, the style of which makes up the majority of the album’s playing time, are reminiscent of early My Brightest Diamond, a less rigid St Vincent and the playfulness of Tune-Yard but without the world-music bias; vocally dominant women who all successfully dally in multiple genres, refusing to commit to just one.
‘White Noise’, the brassiest track here and also the most forthright, and ‘Metronome’ (about alcoholism and sex respectively), are beat heavy and uninhibited, delirious but thought out tunes that deliver the absolute highlights of the set. They also serve to emphasise the shortage of solid songs here. Whilst these tracks grab your attention and maintain it from start to finish they also have tunes that will pop up in your head long after you’ve finished listening to the album. It is because of Diesel’s incredibly felt and centrally placed vocals that this is a collection of tracks that cry out for melodies that support the strength of her performances. Tracks like ‘Baby’ and ‘No Devotion’, although drenched in fantastic effects and details, make little lasting impact and even following several album replays it’s as though they are being experienced for the first time every time.
Enclosed within its acoustic shell, Baby is an album full of amazing, buzzing sounds and enduring passions. With each subsequent album Diesel has upped the ante and from the humble, lo-fi beginnings of Phylactery Factory to a soundscape that has grown to almost full spectacle. On occasion it’s a little on the rich side – there’s nothing wrong with that, but when opulence forsakes structure, highs are sometimes followed by amnesia and it is then a wish for stronger melodies can prevail. Instant impressions based on the aforementioned opening and closing tracks also dictate that the album is listened to in full to avoid what could be considered by some as a nasty surprise. White Hinterland has made something that is, I suspect, deeply personal and with a palpable sense of freeness that is liberating, sometimes garishly so, but in spite of its shortfalls there is still plenty to enjoy.