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New Pornographers' Latest LP, Whiteout Conditions, Expands Its Sound



At this point, the members of the New Pornographers are power-pop royalty. The Canadian juggernaut, which plays Delmar Hall on August 13, released its seventh straight collection of critically acclaimed indie pop, Whiteout Conditions, in April, continuing a winning streak that began in 2000 with Mass Romantic. On that album the band established its maximalist attack, stacking soaring harmonies atop layers of glowing keyboards, buzzing synths, chugging guitars and even occasional strings — and its sound has only grown larger as more musicians joined its ranks.

Nearly all of these grand productions start with an idea by A.C. Newman, the band's founder, principal songwriter and general captain.

"At the heart of it, when I'm writing songs it's a very solitary thing," he tells the RFT. "Even when we have the song recorded, sometimes I'm just sitting by myself in the studio just trying to figure out what do we have to do. Just messing around, trying to figure out how to arrange the song so it sounds the way I want it to sound."

That isn't to say Newman dictates every part.

"I'll just tell people to play," he explains. "I'll tell Kathryn [Calder, keyboardist and singer], 'Sing something cool, some harmonies should be at the end, sing something cool.' Often something's added that really makes the song."

Managing all the moving parts can be tricky, but Newman always finds a way to cultivate the cacophony into a song with forward momentum. The many bright hooks of early classics such as "The Laws Have Changed" and "Use It" mesh perfectly, earning these colorful mini-masterpieces of pop-rock a permanent place in New Pornographers' sets.

Whiteout Conditions exerts a tighter control on its melodies and pushes them along at a motorik rhythm. Describing the style as "bubblegum kraut-rock," Newman says the group came upon the style organically when working on the demo for what would become leadoff song "Play Money."

"I didn't really think super hard about it," he says. "We just thought, 'This sounds cool, let's keep going down this road."

The new album also furthers New Pornographers' foray into electronic textures, which began with previous release Brill Bruisers. Newman's recent preference for keyboards over guitars is evident in the quantized synth lines and percussion loops that adorn most songs. The studio is also used as an instrument, most prominently on "Second Sleep," where vocals are sampled, chopped up and stitched together in a way that intentionally lets the seams show.

"I love in this new age where it's so easy just to manipulate keyboards, it's so easy to just play with sound," Newman says. Referring to this process as "jamming in a strange way," Newman found inspiration in cutting up riffs, experimenting with arpeggiators and "trying to find sounds that inspire you or make you think of a melody."

Before jamming in a strange way with a computer, Newman jammed in the regular sense with his band, which had a slightly different makeup this time around. Dan Bejar, who normally contributes three songs to each New Pornographers album, was busy with his main project Destroyer and didn't feel he had any songs stylistically appropriate for what would become Whiteout Conditions. In addition, this album marked the first time drummer Joe Seiders recorded with the band (he joined the group during the Brill Bruisers tour in 2014).

While the wily Bejar's songwriting is missed, his absence didn't affect Newman's work. "It's like I've been telling people: 'You want to hear what this album would sound like if Dan was on it? Well, it would be this album plus three more songs,'" Newman says. Seiders' presence had more of an effect. "Previously, there was more of like, 'I'm the drummer and I'm in charge of drums,' and on this one there was definitely a lot more back and forth." Seiders' willingness to collaborate extended to playing alongside drum loops, which New Pornographers hadn't done before.

Running parallel to his band's sonic evolution is Newman's darker lyrical direction. "High Ticket Attractions" outlines his anxiety over the Trump presidency, "Whiteout Conditions" describes a depressive episode and multiple songs mention cons and twisting rules. These themes purposefully stand in sharp contrast to the major key melodies and radiant vocals.

"I think I write these songs to make myself feel better," Newman says, while noting that he's always viewed pop music as an escape. "Musically, everything about the melody and the feel is there just to be uplifting. But the message behind it is, I'm trying to be uplifting, but there are things I'm fighting. A lot of it is about a battle to get out of a bad place."

Judging by his Twitter musings, Newman seems to be winning this battle. Although littered with passionate, sometimes angry political posts, Newman's feed is full of wry wit and facetious commentary (he pretended his son was devastated when children's musician Raffi objected to his band's name). His trollish tendencies can make it tough to decipher when he's being serious; when pressed for clarification, Newman says his tweets criticizing New Pornographers' album The Electric Version are a case of "doing it just to be a dick."

"What I love about Twitter is it's such a weird one-way throw-away thing," he says. "You can just joke around on Twitter and if nobody thinks it's funny, nobody pays attention and you just continue on."

Newman and company, meanwhile, continue on the road with a tour that seems to hit every city this year. The lineup will look different from the last time New Pornographers played in St. Louis in 2014. Like Bejar, vocalist Neko Case has her own projects to attend to, and has dropped off this leg of the tour. However, after two years of touring with New Pornographers, violinist and singer Simi Stone has "become essentially a permanent member," which has expanded the number of songs the band can take on the road.

For his part, Newman looks forward to one local constant: "As long as I get to check out the Walk of Fame, I'm good."

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