Wrapping up this exhausting journey through my favorite albums of 2014 is perhaps its most overlooked. White Hinterland in the past have worked largely in dream-pop sequences, but Baby sees Casey Dienel stepping out of that haze into something poppier, akin to say Fiona Apple (the lyrics are a bit traditional than Apple’s, but the composition is busier and more jazzy). Dienel is definitely big-voiced, showing both a wide singing range and an ability to belt out impassioned parts. Her schooling in composition shows here — these songs take interesting turns without ever feeling unusual. The melodies on these songs are beautiful, but credit goes to Dienel to not just rely on that beauty. She’s willing to ugly up her melody, hitting slightly off notes to express anger or frustration, a trick that reminds me a lot of some of the vocals the Dirty Projectors do. The greatest asset Baby has is its ability to provide truly stunning moments with the strong progression of these songs and some daring compositional ideas. Certainly some songs are better than others, but every song has a wow moment.
Baby isn’t a concept album per se, but the album does center around the idea of a sort of love/hate relationship with a man named David. It’s a well-trodden path, but it allows Dienel to write some deeply personal songs. You can feel how emotionally invested Dienel is throughout the album. Basing the album on this relationship also allows us to write songs in many different moods without losing continuity. We can jump from a tender piano ballad like “David” into a powerful, urgent “Baby” and hold onto the feeling that all these songs are linked. The album can whip from demanding to sensitive to standoffish to pleading from track to track, and that emotional range helps make Baby an enjoyable listen. Dienel can deliver on all these emotions, both with the instrumentals she backs her track with and her versatility as a singer.
The real joy in this album for me is in the song compositions. Dienel takes bold choices in her songs and has the chops to back them up. This starts with the album’s cold open on “Wait Until Dark,” Dienel starting the album singing a capella. It’s deliberately uncomfortable, Dienel purposefully hitting the ugly notes to create the sense of unease she feels in her relationship. “Wait Until Dark” only contains piano backing, and when that piano comes in I feel a deep sense of relief. The piano line is all over the place, jumping from measure-length chords to arpeggios seemingly randomly, and Dienel’s vocal melody is also free, roaming all over the place. That sense of freedom is all over the place on this album, parts floating in and out in a relatively unstructured way belying Dienel’s jazz background. The drum parts for “Dry Mind,” “Ring the Bell,” and “Metronome” are a good example of this freedom, highly syncopated and coming in and out of the mix at strange times. Baby does offer its conventional moments, though. The way Dienel’s vocals step forward transitioning into the chorus of “Metronome” is an impressive moment of pop. The way the instruments fall away transitioning from verse to chorus in “No Devotion” is stunning. Dienel’s voice quiets to a whimper, and the whole tone of the song changes to something really wistful.
Baby does so many things well. Songs like “Ring The Bell” are excellent marriages of her dream pop and jazz sides. She writes both compelling piano ballads and dense, overwhelming songs like “Sickle No Sword.” These dense songs may be my only complaint on this album. I feel like at points there’s just a tad much going on in “Sickle No Sword” or “Metronome,” and that overpowers the beautiful vocals Dienel provides. This is a minor complaint, though, as “Metronome” redeems itself both with the shifs that occur on its two bridge parts part. And that’s a quality I really love about this album — there so many moments where Dienel will deliver a stunning vocal melody, or makes a decision with the instrumentals that turns the mood on its head, or Dienel’s ability to make a simple piano ballad compelling. Baby is front to back maybe the most consistent album I’ve heard all year, and it baffles me it hasn’t gotten more attention.