Kathryn Calder Kathryn CalderAre You My Mother?
In the already very distant past, the year 1960, if a kid wanted to be considered smart and take a book, read it from beginning to end all by himself (and probably spread the news all around afterwards), he could ask his parents to buy him the recently-published “Are You My Mother?.” The story is simple: an egg breaks, and the baby bird that was inside it finds itself alone in the nest. His mother has gone out to get food. The newborn, who’s neither stupid nor lazy, wondering where his mother is, flies off (that’s how precocious he is) to look for her. And along the way, he asks all sorts of animals, and even bulldozers, if any of them are his mother. Ok, well it turns out that this drama is also the title of the solo debut of The New Pornographers vocalist, Kathryn Calder, who, it seems, found the composition and recording of the album punctuated by her mother’s death. So, it’s possible that something of that sadness must have flooded our Canadian artist’s heart and been translated into a bundle of sad, plaintive compositions. Would it have been a good bet? I, for one, might have pigeonholed her in the musical genre of “bearded-young-man-ism” given the power pop roots of megaband The New Pornographers. Nevertheless, Calder fortunately applied a psychological recital to herself about how to face painful losses and other complications of the heart by way of a positive energy massage (on location, that is to say, while she was composing and taking care of her sick mother both at the same time). You can see this in the songs, like when we tie our trainers and we feel the synthetic upper embracing our feet. Colin Stewart as producer is an acquaintance of Calder’s since her first group, Immaculate Machine, and has also collaborated as the second-in-command on albums by Frog Eyes or Swan Lake, for example. There are also guests worthy of a mention such as Kurth Dahle, Todd Fancey, and Neko Case (friends from The New Pornographers), and some of the members of Frog Eyes and Ladyhawk.
Not only do Calder and Case both look like the archetypal woman who many of us imagine as Canadian or, generically, from the North (freckled, with light skin, redheaded, and addicted to hairpins), but they also go hand in hand musically speaking – and to say that Neko Case puts out highly respectable alternative country music isn’t the same as saying that Calder, in her debut, is already up to the other’s (consolidated) level. Perhaps Calder feels more at home with scraps of dream pop and similar (like what happens with the Edison Woods-style piano and the claps and hummed choruses in the stupendous “Slip Away”, or the bedroom whispers and views of floating organs through the window of “Low”), but when she puts on a skirt and patent leather shoes, she dances better than a school girl (in the very She & Him “Castor and Pollux”). Speaking of happiness (or of the spirit and character of her mother, since Calder tried to render her homage with songs that are jovial rather than with weeping willow notes), “If You only Knew” seems like a sound translation of the typical song to sing and clap to during high school field trips (imagine a well-to-do high school with hippy students, though). Calder’s ability to make us feel good is admirable considering the creative background of the album. She only leaves us emotional transparencies in the bittersweet “Arrow” (with the omnipresent piano behind it, of course).
It’s a shame that some songs sputter into low gear: the B-side of “Low”, “Follow Me into the Hills”, the tiresomeness of “A Day Long Past Its Prime” that doesn’t fit in at all, and the photocopy of Nina Nastasia without black ink that is “So Easily”. But we have to remember that very few debuts are perfect, and many follow-up albums have more filler than a puff pastry. A final wink to dream pop, “All It Is”, is the final touch, which Kathryn Calder should take as a signpost, a direction to follow, in order to avoid, not only being pigeonholed in one or another genre, or associated with a sad, bearded sentimentalism (or just plain alt-country), but precisely so that they classify her as another artist who had a great group, and whose solo career grew to the point where it overshadowed the group.