4 out of 5
Produced by: John McEntire
A long hiatus after the relatively sleepy Millions of Brazillians, Dianogah return to the studio with John McEntrire – and the more fleshed-out contingent of post-rock sounds he brings along, with keys and guitar and strings fleshing out the band’s two-bass / drums setup – but this time, it’s no longer a promising act bleeding in to the more typical Chicago, post-rock sound: it’s seasoned players, playing at their peak, and playing what they want.
The first trio of songs on Qhnnnl are indicative of the different styles on the album: Jay Ryan sings a bit over the boppy, angular pop of opener Oneone; Stephanie Morris adds depth to the emotive, Brazillians-esque A Breaks B, with Andrew Bird assisting on violin; and then a freaking distortion pedal kicks in on the rocking title track. None of these modes are necessarily new for Dianogah, as they’ve touched on these elements throughout their career, but having them altogether is interesting, and the compilation-nature of that seems to promote some focus: that pop is poppier than before; when they do the full band shtick, it doesn’t sound like a shtick; and I don’t think they’ve ever rocked this directly. At the same time, it’s hard to say these tracks create the feeling of an album. Rather, the group laid out different things they wanted to try – there are call-and-response style vocals at one point; there’s a lot of fun, showy bass noodling – and went at it, Dianogah style, maintaining their groove-laden approach throughout. So each song is absolutely identifiable as them, but each song also somewhat exists on its own.
Thankfully, each song is also incredibly catchy, and rich, and polished, and damn near perfect – any step toward over-indulgence is quickly diverted away from toward some new playful tweak, and McEntire’s production is sharp, ditching what I normally feel is a kind of washed-out sound for something that really supports the group’s precise playing style. The pick-and-choose nature of the album certainly also means that Qhnnnl is continually surprising: you don’t get “stuck” in any particular mode.
Unfortunately, the passing of Stephanie Morris soon after this disc seemed to prevent the group from moving forward on further releases (at least at this point), which – and I’m apologetically minimizing the loss of Morris by stating this – is disappointing in that I can imagine another album would’ve found this second iteration of the band combining their new range with a more unified, song-to-song groove. Qhnnnl is nonetheless an excellent swan song for Dianogah, if it does turn out to be their final release.