New Pornographers, “Whiteout Conditions” (Concord)
The New Pornographers have never sounded more like an indie-rock supergroup than they do right now. Their new, well-named album is a power-pop blizzard, one layer of sweet, harmonic goodness after another. The harmonies of Neko Case, A.C. Newman and Kathryn Calder accumulate so nicely, especially on the melancholy but resolute “We’ve Been Here Before,” where the instrumentation is pared back enough to let their vocals shine.
For most of “Whiteout Conditions,” though, more is more, to the point that it sounds delightfully decadent. Even without singer/guitarist Dan Bejar, who sat out working on this album so he could finish his new Destroyer album, the band is seven strong and their power is felt.
“Play Money” is packed to the gills with cool. There’s a clever lyrical balance between being mercenary and being altruistic, as Case declares, “For a fee, I’ll fight any foe” and later “For a fee, I’ll right any wrong.” Musically, there are bloopy synths, driving guitars, AutoTuned accents and some unexpected harmonies — all working together to create a show of force.
The first single, “High Ticket Attractions,” finds the New Pornographers embracing Krautrock, like fellow Canadian collective Arcade Fire did on their last album. But Newman and Case are coming at it from a poppier viewpoint, allowing the dark groove to balance their chipper harmonies.
That feeling seems to fuel “Whiteout Conditions,” the idea of keeping a brave, smiling face while you prepare for serious battle. The title track feels like a new-millennium update of A Flock of Seagulls’ “Space Age Love Song,” the former’s synthesized simplicity remade in the image of today’s increased complications, where Newman frets about things going viral and “the waste of a beautiful day.”
But there’s no waste here. Every ambitious layer of “Whiteout Conditions” serves its purpose well.
The New Pornographers perform Tuesday at First Avenue.
GLENN GAMBOA, Newsday
Mastodon, “Emperor of Sand” (Reprise)
Metal purists are like country purists. The debate is about remaining true to the cause. Are bands keeping it sludgy — or twangy — enough to please old-school fans? Or are they selling out by rendering the music too easily digestible, hawking their wares to the mainstream?
On “Emperor of Sand,” Atlanta heavy-hitter Mastodon skillfully walks both sides of the line. The pummeling prog-rockers with three singers — guitarist Brent Hinds, bassist Troy Sanders and drummer Brann Dailor — return to the concept album approach. The songs are linked by a narrative about a lone warrior wandering the wasteland after being handed a death sentence by a desert tyrant (“Sultan’s Curse”) as the sands of time fall through the hourglass and lead us all toward our ultimate demise. There’s plenty of time-signature switching, precision playing, and intricate riffage, but also inviting melodic choruses that could almost pass for pop hooks.
And though the story line might seem a mere exercise in heavy rock fixation with scary-seeming mythology, note that the album was recorded while several people close to the band were battling cancer and guitarist Bill Kelliher’s mother died of a brain tumor, and the narrative about the struggle to survive intentionally resonates beyond its literal story line.
DAN DELUCA, Philadelphia Inquirer
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