White Hinterland Phylactery Factory

[Dead Oceans; 2008]

Styles: jazzy piano ballads with accompaniment
Others: Nellie McKay, Joni Mitchell, Joanna Newsom

As a precocious 20-year-old, Casey Dienel released her charming and promising debut album, Wind-Up Canary. Equal parts Nellie McKay and Joni Mitchell, her minimalist sound mixed funky, post-boogie-woogie piano, mature, striking vocals, and little else. There was the odd appearance of a horn, cello, and banjo here and there, but Dienel fit squarely in the singer/songwriter-with-pastoral-instrumentations-and-sensibilities clique. For an artist as talented as Dienel, however, such claustrophobic confines are never wholly satisfying. So, she changed her name to White Hinterland and brought along some talented friends for the ride. The end product is Phylactery Factory, which finds Dienel transitioning towards new musical frontiers, while perfecting old ones.

Or, as she literally articulates it on the first track, “The Destruction of the Art Deco House,” destructing her elegant and functional sound. Although it is a familiarly piano-led ballad, the appearance of restrained synths, drums, and acoustic bass introduce the listener to the richer and darker sounds of these songs. Whereas Wind-Up Canary simply evoked a jazz bar, Phylactery Factory’s extra sonic layers give it life, adding the red lighting, murky shadows, and personality. But, as interesting and exciting as this new sonic landscape feels, Dienel’s transition is not perfect. One of her greatest assets is her voice; her distinctive whimsical and dynamic vocals act as the perfect inspiriting vessel for her charming personality and clever poetry, although it too often becomes buried in the fuller instrumentation that marks this album, stifling her personality and dampening her poetry.

As a result, Dienel truly shines on the less cacophonous tracks that subtly perfect, rather than re-invent, the sound that she crafted for Wind-Up Canary. One of the main changes on this album is the length of the songs. Whereas on her debut Dienel largely crafted four-minute pop songs, on Phylactery Factory she tends to stray towards Joanna Newsom-esque grandiosity. This expansion is one of the true breakthroughs of the album, as this extra time gives her empty spaces over which her vocals and poetry can shine. Take “Hometown Hooray,” which finds Dienel warmly noodling at her piano while singing an ode to a dead soldier. Oppositely, “Lindberghs + Metal Birds” is an effective anti-war treatise: “You’re no better than those altruists and eagle scouts/ You belong with the convalescents who couldn’t make it out on the front line.” Meanwhile, Dienel’s most cynical reflections on romance are found on the jazzy and upbeat “Dreaming of the Plum Trees”: “Oh when I saw that girl Ruthie/ She was running through the streets in her bare feet/ Someone ought to be ashamed of her.”

Dienel’s transition from solo artist to bandleader proves an effective one on Phylactery Factory. Just as her sound has become fuller and richer, her poetry and singing have also improved by leaps and bounds in the two years between her albums. If Dienel can correct the few missteps that marred Phylactery Factory and continue perfecting her trademark sound, the sky is the limit for this maturing and prodigious artist.

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