White Hinterland: “Phylactery Factory”

You could say that Phylactery Factory is the debut album to beat in 2008, but you’d only be half right. It’s certainly a stunning record, capturing the wide-eyed enthusiasm and ambition of a very young artist but also the vision and maturity of a veteran, and indeed, it is the first album issued under the name White Hinterland; by Grammy rules, anyway, it qualifies as a debut. But the genesis of White Hinterland doesn’t mark the beginning of a brand new musical talent so much as it represents the act of Casey Dienel– singer, songwriter, and pianist– adding still another title to her impressive resume: bandleader.

And indeed, Phylactery Factory doesn’t sound like the work of a solo artist, but of a full-fledged band– specifically, a particularly adventurous, experimental jazz band. But even though most of these songs are performed with piano, upright bass, brushed percussion, and tasteful flourishes of strings and guitars– and even though only one song, the album-closing “Vessels,” is performed without full-band accompaniment– Phylactery Factory isn’t really a jazz album, and it isn’t really a band album. Don’t think of this as the formation of a new group so much as an extension of Dienel’s musical personality; these nine songs are, at heart, singer/songwriter compositions, with Dienel’s new cast of contributors allowing her to stretch herself and take her music in some exciting new directions.

The result could perhaps best be described as a jazzy folk album not entirely unlike some of Joni Mitchell’s more adventurous outings, but that’s not really doing Dienel and Co. justice. Phylactery Factory happens to be an exquisitely beautiful album, mysterious and romantic, warm and welcoming, and much more complex than first meets the eye. For one thing, though Dienel may dress these songs in the instrumentation of jazz music, her playing bears a closer resemblance to classical music– intricate and complicated, but always melodic and generally very stately. And though the Hinterland crew gives these songs a rambling, improvisational feel– and Dienel doesn’t always write in typical verse/chorus structure– there are some subtle complexities and genre blurrings here that reward active, attentive listening. Though the musicians never call attention to their sonic shenanigans– the songs always come first– there is a richness to the playing and a quietly adventurous spirit to the compositions that sees the brooding chamber pop of “Calliope” morphing and taking off into a spirited, cathartic anthem, “The Destruction of the Art Deco House” building upon itself with layer upon layer of sinister dread, and “Napoleon at Waterloo” shifting from whimsy to black comedy. She channels Vince Guaraldi through Sufjan Stevens for “Dreaming of the Plum Trees,” and “Hung on a Thin Thread” feels almost like a jazzy spiritual. And it all feels so natural and unpretentious that, by the time Dienel scales the band back to play a solo piece of Mediterranean folk for the final song, it’s neither jarring nor even very surprising; it just feels like the natural fit to a delightful and fascinating cycle of songs.

But the complexity of Dienel’s music isn’t just in the arrangement and the production, but in the songwriting as well. There’s a strong sense of tension in these songs; though Dienel sings them in a cheerful, girlish trill that recalls Jolie Holland, Joanna Newsom, and yes, Joni Mitchell, and though her melodies are straightforwardly beautiful and often rather playful, her lyrics are often dark, or at least very heady. It’s an album about love and war, about violence and destruction and loss, and there seems to be a creeping sense of the sinister in even the most cheerful-sounding songs. “The Destruction of the Art Deco House” begins the album with Dienel whispering a stream-of-consciousness account of passing time and the changes it brings; when she sings that “it’s not what it seems,” that sets the tone for the rest of the album, and the mood carries into the chipper, small-town gossip of “Dreaming of the Plum Trees” (“Someone ought to be ashamed!” sings Dienel with a wink.)

Songs like that one and “Hometown Hooray” offer joyfully sincere, innocent expressions of love and grace, but the threat of loss– particularly, of war– looms over the whole record. The latter song begins with the burial of a fallen soldier before turning into a reflection of young, untarnished love– “Our skin was a map we knew by heart, and we never once got lost,” sings a wistful Dienel. The wrenching refrain stands in stark contrast to that youthful innocence: “No one wants to admit you died in vain.” Elsewhere, Dienel muses about a beached whale in “A Beast Washed Ashore”– a song eerily reflected in the cover art of hyenas pulling apart an animal’s carcass– and gives an ironic acknowledgment of the fleeting nature of power in “Napoleon at Waterloo” (“Do not falter, nor stand afraid/ he is the one who holds us all/ as one by one, we all”).

And that’s just scraping the surface of a wonderful album full of mysteries to explore and complex issues to unravel. The whole thing drifts along like it’s a dream, but Dienel’s songwriting anchors it squarely in the land of the living. The result is an album that’s a lot darker and heavier than it sounds, which makes it all the more compelling and fun to listen to. Dienel’s songs have always been fine on their own– no one ever thought she particularly needed a band– but her debut as White Hinterland reveals a singer with a strong, clear creative vision that isn’t hampered, but enhanced, by a full group of contributors.

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