There was something soothingly familiar about White Hinterland’s debut album Phylactery Factory. Restrained, cocktail-lounge musical backdrops and Casey Dienel’s expressive vocals resulted in an album with echoes of the intimate. Familiarity has its downside, however, and Phylactery Factory never quite settled on a sound of its own. Maybe it took approaching the songs of others to clarify Dienel’s own songwriting: Luniculaire, a 2009 EP of transfigured Gallic pop, was unsettling in ways you don’t expect a standards album to be. Based on the sensibility of Phylactery Factory, one might have expected Luniculaire to be a model of Francophile restraint. Instead, the songs were jagged and fragmented, violently reimagining their sources as starting points for explorations of rhythm and contrasting textures.
Kairos takes a slight step back from there in the direction of accessibility. Some of the songs here — “No Logic” in particular — have more than a passing familiarity to the handcrafted rhythms made by Tune-Yards; others, such as “Cataract,” could serve as evidence of a trip-hop revivalism on the rise. While the group’s first album called to mind Madeleine Peyroux and Petra Haden’s collaboration with Bill Frisell, Kairos is more likely to earn Dienel comparisons to Tune-Yard’s Merrill Garbus and the Dirty Projectors’ Angel Deradoorian, both vocally and in the larger sense of musicians welding a fondness for soul balladry with cut-and-paste sensibility.
Dienel has a fine ability to croon, and it’s not surprising that lost love is at the heart of many of these songs. “Even though I may be out of the picture, baby / You can rely on me,” she sings on “Cataract,” before adding the caveat “from time to time.” Elsewhere, her lyrics evoke violence through unusual imagery, as on “Magnolias”: “Bleeding into the lake is a blood-red paper corsage / Once you said that you hated all flowers but for magnolias.” Here, she and bandmate Shawn Creeden get it right: the repetitive structure here accentuates the strangeness of the lyrics, turning the assemblage of details into something brooding and surreal.
As with the band’s previous full-length, Kairos never fails to be listenable. Dienel and Creeden are very much in pop-song mode here, though the pop being evoked is a more niche corner of that world than what was evoked on Phylactery Factory. The risks taken on Luniculaire, however, suggest that the group could go further with their sound. Their identity here just isn’t as distinctive as their aforementioned contemporaries. Given that the press materials accompanying this album refer to lineup changes between Phylactery Factory and Kairos, this may well be a debut of sorts. If it is, it’s a promising place to start.