The most striking element of White Hinterland’s latest album, Kairos (Dead Oceans), is its focus on the human voice, the strongest and most unique instrument that any on person can utilize. White Hinterland’s (Casey Dienel and Shawn Creeden) instrumentation is light and carefully inserted into each song, and not utilized as a means of overcompensateing for a lack of melody. In fact, Kairos is rife with strong, eloquent melodies (sung by Dienel), making it more of an r&b album in comparison to the group’s previous work that combined elements of psych, folk, and indie rock.
The album speaks to a contemporary independent movement in which musicians attempt to make albums that blend genres, especially genres that the population tends to relegate to the mainstream (pop, r&b). The unfortunate result of this is the much-expected question of authenticity. Eventually, the criticism outweighs the focus on the execution of the music and whether or not it is good. In White Hinterland’s case, it is good – very, very good.
“Icarus,” the first single from Kairos, is a quietly layered tune. Dienel’s voice is at her most ethereal and the song is a dream-pop delight comprised of a drum machine and a couple of carefully placed synths. Like their contemporaries The xx, Dienel knows when to add additional elements to a song that already seems beautifully complete a capella, and when to take a step back.
In “Thunderbird,” a powerfully daunting and looping bass forms the backbone of the song, transforming it into a pseudo-dubstep piece of perfection. It is the band’s darkest compositional moment and Dienel’s most haunting vocally. The combination gives the song the sort of physical presence that makes the album so rich. On “Bow and Arrow,” the splintered and simplistic instrumentation has the nostalgic aesthetic of a late 90s hip-hop song. The listener expects the lyrics to be more tongue-in-cheek but they have the sort of open earnestness that stems from a folk singer-songwriter tradition.
The album would sound striking if it were released a decade earlier but now, years into the slow progressing, yet still seemingly inevitable, blending of genres, sounds fitting. Compared to past White Hinterland albums, Dienel and Creeden sound surer of themselves. Dienel’s warped melodies and vocal intonation feel more genuine. The album has a few missteps – songs that sound incomplete or are too heavy-handed in their instrumentation – but the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses. With Kairos, Dienel and Creeden have begun to come into their own.