You could be forgiven for having given up on the New Pornographers a few albums back. Though the Vancouver group are consistently fine purveyors of modern power-pop, few bands can sustain their initial burst of creativity into a second decade.
Yet the band surprised even their most ardent supporters with 2014's Brill Bruisers, an album that managed to capture the urgency of their earliest releases while tightening the hooks and updating their sound. With its gurgling synths and propulsive forward momentum, "Champions of Red Wine" was the perfect example of this new approach — and that track proves to be a jumping off point for Whiteout Conditions, the 18-year-old group's seventh album.
"Bubble-gum Krautrock" has been group mastermind Carl Newman's line for the band's new tact, a sound bite-friendly descriptor that is surprisingly apt here. Playing faster than ever before, the band's more aggressive (for them at least) sound is matched by darker lyrical themes brought about by the death of Newman's sister ("Whiteout Conditions") and political cynicism ("High Ticket Attractions").
The real standout, however, is the plethora of vocal hooks. Melody has always come easily to the group, but the repetitive nature of syncopated synths puts the onus on the band's voices; if the melodies didn't stick, the whole thing would fall apart. Thankfully, Newman, Neko Case, Kathryn Calder and company step up to the task with aplomb, delivering some of the band's most memorable melodies since Case's soaring turns on Mass Romantic.
Of course, the elephant in the room is Dan Bejar, who was busy working on a Destroyer record and feeling out-of-sync musically with the group's more electronic direction. His idiosyncratic songs have always been welcome additions to New Pornos records, so their absence is notable and noticeable. Yet, you'd be hard pressed to argue that the album suffers because of this.
That's no dig against Bejar; rather, it's a testament to the quality of a group whose sound and aesthetic is, more than ever, unbound by their "super-group" status. They're firing on all cylinders on Whiteout Conditions, working as one to deliver their most cohesive — and one of their best — albums to date. (Dine Alone)