How does one go about ‘deconstructing’ pop? Is that what Lorde did last year, in delivering a record as polished as it was minimalist? I might as well mention her name this early, because reviews of White Hinterland’s Baby are bound to draw the fairly obvious comparison between Casey Dienel and her much younger Kiwi counterpart. There’s plenty more than that, though, to the Massachusetts native’s theatrical sound, something that she was clearly still in the process of exploring on 2010’s Kairos.
Given how freely she seems to have flitted between projects throughout the course of her career to date, it’s perhaps not totally surprising that it’s taken Dienel quite this long to reconnect with her Hinterland collaborator, Shawn Creeden. It’s something that’s reflected in Baby’s deliberate pace; opener “Wait Until Dark” keeps proceedings strictly acapella for the first minute or so, Dienel’s delivery only ceding ground to a simple piano thereafter.
Her appetite for vocal dramatics is surely the primary reason for her attraction to minimalist pop templates; she’s a picture of restraint one minute, and spiraling dangerously out of control the next. On the low-key “Dry Mind”, she matches a stuttering, hip hop beat with a suitably slinky, soulful turn, whilst “White Noise” sees her veer from brooding menace to Bjork-ish acrobatics at alarmingly short notice.
There isn’t really much room to fault Baby as a showcase for Dienel’s voice; she’s turned in some thrillingly eccentric performances, such as the irresistible funk strut of “Metronome”, or a more straightforward, refined showing on the yearning “David”. There’s no such uniformity of excellence to the instrumentation, though, and it’s on that particular mixed bag that the record falls down a little.
When Baby gets the stripped-back sound it strives for right, it gets it really right; the title track is probably the standout, with a choppy beat and bursts of irregular synth that prove neatly tailored to Dienel’s sultry, looped tones. “Sickle No Sword”, too, is a highlight, taking its time to simmer towards a fabulously bolshy climax, but elsewhere, there’s evidence of an overcrowding of ideas that produces muddled results.
“No Devotion” is an awkward listen, bringing together what sounds like reversed, sampled cymbals and monotonous electronics to jarring effect. Single “Ring the Bell”, meanwhile, has barely any sense of direction and far too much going on behind Dienel’s one genuinely erratic moment on the record; the percussion’s intrusive, the synths are messy and the whole thing just sounds so exhaustingly busy.
In closing, “Live with You” covers precisely no ground that fellow bookend “Wait Until Dark” didn’t manage; it’s another sparse, piano-driven effort that’s perfectly lovely, but perhaps a bridge too far with a couple of enormously similar efforts elsewhere on the album. It’s a strange moment of tedium on a record that, for better or worse, is a pretty diverse affair; it won’t be the year’s slickest or tightest alt-pop effort, but it’s plenty adventurous – for the most part, endearingly so.