Album Reviews

Kathryn Calder – Are You My Mother?

(Oscar Street) UK release date: 29 August 2011

It seems strange to be writing about Kathryn Calder’s magnificent solo debut the best part of a year after it first emerged (and with its follow-up Bright And Vivid scheduled for Canadian release in October), but such is the unjust neglect Calder has suffered in the UK. Calder is little-known here, in spite of her major roles in Canandian power pop supergroup The New Pornographers (not just playing keyboards but also assuming most of Neko Case’s vocal duties when performing live) and in the highly underrated Immaculate Machine. The latter group featured Calder in a more creative and prominent role, giving the first hint of her effortless way with a winning melody. Sadly, they achieved little commercial success, in spite of the canny accessibility of their best songs, and after some line-up changes, they disbanded last year. The mantle has since been passed to Calder as a solo artist.

Are You My Mother? is an intimate, touching album largely written in response the two years Calder spent caring for her terminally ill mother. It is hardly mournful or depressing, however – indeed, some of it is even bright and sprightly. Recorded at home with an impressive cast of guest musicians (including members of The New Pornographers and Ladyhawk, it doesn’t conceal an occasionally ramshackle nature, but it also proudly exhibits Calder’s attention to detail. The songs are delightfully constructed, often whimsical (and for once this is not a pejorative term) and focused on Calder’s intricate, sweet melodies. The accompaniments are sometimes minimal, but always nuanced and thoughtful.

The opening Slip Away is a case in point as to how Calder approaches arrangement. It begins with her thin, rather fragile voice very exposed, before an exhilarating world of guitars, pianos and auxiliary percussion hurtles in. Calder seems to throw so many melodic ideas in to the mix here that it would be enough for six songs from lesser writers. Some of her best ideas are delivered so lightly and without fanfare as to seem almost throwaway. Her work is always in service to the song and, in spite of the personal content here, the results are entirely selfless as a result. The songs are often completely infectious, particularly the wonderful summery vocal chorus and clattering percussion of If You Only Knew. Follow Me Into The Hills combines a mellifluous melody with an irresistible guitar twang. The use of percussion, as opposed to just drums, is a masterstroke throughout the album.

In addition to this lightness of touch, Calder is more than capable of being dramatic. Reviewers who only seemed to notice the melancholy piano ballads obviously chose to ignore the driving A Day Long Past Its Prime (on which Calder’s voice is intentionally distorted), the exuberant sugar-rush of Castor & Pollux or the elaborate, passionate Down The River. The latter benefits from a series of brilliantly controlled crescendos, moving between delicate melancholy and glorious, shimmering interludes.

Perhaps there is nothing breathtakingly original here, but Calder is so adept at refining the twin crafts of songwriting and arranging that it hardly matters. It’s unlikely that an album as mature, unassuming and graceful as this will receive many plaudits from a music industry that favours grand gestures and big stories, but there’s little doubt that Calder is an artist to cherish and support. Albums like this help make the world make sense and put everything in clearer perspective. Perhaps the only problem is that, at just 36 minutes, it seems to end far too soon.

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Kathryn Calder – Are You My Mother?