To their credit, Casey Dienel and Shawn Creden, a.k.a. White Hinterland, are a tough band to pin down. In just four years and a bare handful of releases, the duo has already tinkered with many different styles, from the smooth jazz indie-pop of Phylactery Factory to the dissonant cover medley of Luniculaire. True to form, their latest offering, Kairos finds them venturing into new territory, relying on electronic instrumentation to a greater degree than ever before, trading the French bossa nova vibe present in their early work for a sound that leans closer to contemporary R&B. But even though this is virgin territory for White Hinterland, I hope these brave explorers won’t be too disappointed when they notice their terra incognita is strewn with empty beer cans and a few smoldering cigarettes.
Kairos is not an album completely devoid of charm. The R&B influence gives the songs a weight they might otherwise lack. A lazy funk bassline winds its way through songs like “Begin Again” and “Bow & Arrow,” complemented by Dienel’s naturally sultry delivery. If not for glitchy melodic deconstructions peppering the tracks, these songs wouldn’t sound out of place on a New Jack Swing mix tape. At its most abstract, the album recalls some of the more accessible moments of Bitte Orca. And that’s really the heart of the problem; though catchy and competently executed, the songs lack a certain permanence. I feel like a decade from now this album will sound very 2010, and not in the way that Nevermind sounds very 1991, either. More like the way that Sixteen Stone sounds very 1994. No matter how seamlessly they blend their influences and dice them up with broken beats or inverted melodies, this still sounds like Dirty Projectors Lite to me, and given the profusion of artists trying to sound like David Longstreth at the moment, that doesn’t bode well for them.
Dienel has a reliable talent for crafting off-kilter melody, and her fondness for her sources — from new wave to trip-hop to R&B — comes across as genuine and unaffected. There’s plenty to Kairos that will endear it to certain listeners, but ultimately that’s all I feel can be said for the album: it’s fine if you’re into that sort of thing. Kairos is some pretty country with plenty of lovely sights and sounds, but for the sake of the band’s long-term growth, I hope they don’t plan on settling there; it’s going to get strip-mined awfully damn fast.