White Hinterland, the vehicle for songwriter Casey Dienel's winding, often piano-based compositions, reached many ears for the first time with her second album, 2010's Kairos. That album presented Dienel's songs blanketed in dense atmospherics and languid dreaminess, making an already smooth listening experience even easier to digest. Baby, White Hinterland's third full-length, comes from a completely different place, one more jagged and pained but ultimately much more satisfying. In the years that followed Kairos, Dienel spent time living in both Montreal and Portland, Oregon, recording and writing material. Baby didn't come about, however, until she returned to her hometown of Scituate, Massachusetts and built a home studio in the basement of her parents' house. Teaching herself the finer points of production, Baby was created in a completely self-sufficient vacuum from the ground up, and the insular environments (physical and mental) are apparent on its darker, riskier tracks. While the loops, layers, and atmospherics of Kairos haven't completely washed away, Dienel isn't hiding behind anything on Baby. There's a starkness even in the album's busiest moments, as with the walls of vocal harmonies that glide through neo-soul jams like "Metronome." Her voice is the pivotal focus of the album, with more than one moment when all the other elements drop away to reveal nothing but a single, un-effected track of vocals repeating. Baby is made up of jarring choices that congeal into an unexpectedly engaging whole. "Ring the Bell" relies on skeletal beats, icy synth-horn lines, and R&B-modeled vocals, all coated with varying levels and types of distortion. Its minimal frame and offish combinations shouldn't result in a song as hooky as this, but it's one of many moments that confound as much as they amaze. The album volleys between radio-ready electronic soul-inspired romps and haunted piano ballads. One of the latter, "David" begins with layers of eerie backwards vocals, a ghostly nod to the influence of Kate Bush that speaks more of the lonely feel of the song coming from the same place as her great creations than simply trying to re-create them. Though worlds away from White Hinterland's soft-hearted chamber pop beginnings or more recent dreaminess, the dire overall feeling of Baby represents vivid, undeniable growth for the project. The layers of sound and sentiment call out to be peeled away with repeated listening, and the songs sink as they twist through moments of vulnerability, vagueness, and straightforward pop appeal.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas