In Brief: In my favorite side project by any member of The New Pornographers thus far, Kathryn Calder proves herself to be more than just an understudy for Neko Case.
It was the solo work of ringleader A. C. Newman that first drew me into the weird and wonderful world of The New Pornographers. The Canadian supergroup certainly knows how to make a delightful noise and how to puzzle people in the process, and it’s been interesting to dissect the group into the sum of its parts and figure out who brings which elements to the table. For the most part, the group has spent its career with the primary creative forces being Newman’s giddy wordplay and Dan Bejar‘s demented subversiveness. Neko Case gets a lot of attention due to her stunning lead vocals on several tracks, but rarely writes for the group, making her solo work a complete departure from their over-driven style. But out of the group’s four vocalists, their youngest and newest member Kathryn Calder is probably their biggest wildcard. She was initially hired to play keyboards and serve as a vocal fill-in for Neko when tour schedules made it impossible for Neko to be in two places at once. But during the last two New Porno albums, I started to wonder what sort of personality would emerge if Calder (a definite bright spot on the tracks like “Adventures in Solitude” and “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk”) that really highlighted her) had an album all to herself. A glimpse into the inner workings of Calder’s former group, Immaculate Machine, or her first solo album, Are You My Mother?, might have answered that question for me, but instead I chose to dive into her most recent recording, Bright and Vivid, with next to no expectations.
The title is definitely truth in advertising. Kathryn’s persona as a solo artist is brimming over with colorful sounds and fun little experiments, demonstrating some of the same affinity for alliteration and wordplay as Newman (he’s her uncle, so I guess some of that stuff runs in the family), but adopting a decidedly more mixed-bag approach to power pop. The ingredients in your typical New Pornos song (and many of Newman’s solo songs) are fairly basic, the music mostly driven by jangly guitar riffs, oddball rhythms and melodies, and truly massive hooks. Calder knows a thing or two about hook value, but her approach diminishes the “rock” aspect of power pop in favor of a weird mix of baroque pop and synthpop. In some ways that echoes her parent band’s choice to be intentionally anachronistic with the sunny old-timeyness of their sound and the post-modern irony of their lyrics, but she’s got completely different opposing forces at work here. It’s fun, it’s imaginative, and sometimes it’s quite expressively sad or even angry behind all of the playful din. Even at its quietest moment, Bright and Vivid is a lush production, and it’s certainly far enough from the increasingly stripped-down sound that Neko Case has been pursuing to ensure that anyone who listens to the solo work of both women will never, ever confuse them again. While Neko has undeniable class, my personal tastes come out a little more on Kathryn’s side of things. I relate to her because her work feels like that of a curious child in a grown-up’s body, the child within her reaching beyond comfortable song structures for ideas that push the envelope a little, but the adult reining in those tendencies just enough to make sure something genuinely human is still being communicated.
To put it more succinctly: This is be my favorite side project by any member of The New Pornographers thus far. I realize I have the work of Destroyer and about five other bands to catch up on before I can truly stick by that statement, but from what I know so far, Bright and Vivid is holding up well enough that I think it might even make Newman and Bejar a little jealous. –
1. One Two Three
We start out in a bit of a mournful haze, the electric guitar feedback casting a gray shadow over everything as Kathryn’s sweet voice is almost buried behind it. The rhythm is slow but the kick drum hits hard. I’ve heard that much of Kathryn’s first album dealt with the difficult struggle of her mother being sick, and she lost her in the interim between albums, so this track appears to deal with the aftermath, with growing up and realizing that parent is no longer around to lean on. Kathryn has the perfect sort of voice for this – it’s youthful and has that air of inocnce to it, yet from what she’s singing you can tell that the innocence has been worn down a bit through these experiences. It’s an unconventional way to start an album, but I can’t think of many songs that are both fugue-like and pretty, so it’s definitely an attention-grabing way to start.
2. Who Are You?
With its snappy electronic beat and its studio-stacked chorus of Kathryns hammering home a wordless hook, the album’s lead single is pretty much an instant winner. I’ve listened to this one what feels like it must be a ridiculus number of times over the last month or so. Beyond just the inherent infectiousness, I’m also drawn to the sassy nature of the song as Kathryn remarks, “Who are you to say what you’re saying?” She seems to be verbally dismantling a person whose manipulative tendencies annoy her, which works perfectly with the whip-crack beat, as if toy say “I know what you’re up to and I’m in charge now, honey.” The bridge has that air of open-endedness to it that I know I’ve heard a few times in New Pornographers songs: “So you, so you, so you got what you wanted. Did you get what you wanted?” The way she harmonizes with herself there is just killer. Kathryn had her husband in the studio to help with a lot of the layering and just go nuts with the songs in general; instead of overproduction, this is definitely a sign of someone who knows her well and who can make the zany sounds play to her strengths.
3. Turn a Light On
What’s that wooden, fish-shaped thing called that you scrape as a percussion instrument? Whatever it is, it’s prominent at the beginning of this delicious little acoustic song, which seems simple enough at the beginning with its acoustic guitar and mandolin – as I understand it, this was the mode that most of Kathryn’s previous album operated in. There’s a bit of resignation here as she sings of narrowly missing something revelatory, wondering “What’s the use?” of waiting for the wasted opportunity to come back around again. (Sorry, this is the best I can do without lyrics readily available on the Internet.) Lyrics are honestly secondary here, as the song’s true strength is the hall of mirrors that it seems to wander into about halfway through, with Kathryn’s voice echoing off of itself and several secondary instruments chiming in to give it that baroque pop sort of appeal. The result is a song that has the same sort of dramatic build as a powerful New Pornographers ballad such as “My Shepherd”, but that does it in a way more personally suited to Kathryn as a quirky solo artist.
4. Walking in My Sleep
Is that a Rhodes organ? I can’t quite identify all of the interesting keyboard sounds that Kathryn’s learned to play with over the years, but I like the juxtaposition of he fully electronic, edges-rounded-off sound that intentionally clashes with the chatty electric guitar that chimes in once the song gets going. Kathryn’s dvised a song that jumps back and forth between solo spotlight and full-tilt rocker here, which effectively supports some of her best vocal histrionics when she gets to the chorus. (I love the way that she stretches out the word “Fee-ee-ee-ee-ling” after the chorus calms down.) It’s a quick, catchy song, yet it doesn’t slam you with the same immeiate hook value as “Who Are You?” You have to dig for it, and that’s appropriate for a song that zigs and zags, singing of bizarre dreams and the disoriented, alienated feeling one gets upon waking from them. This may or may not be about watching someone go through the stages of a drug addiction.
5. All the Things
This might be the album’s strangest song, though there are a few that could easily compete for that title. It’s definitely the longest, at six minutes even, with the sort of long fade-in that leads you to expect something larger than life. It’s sort of a retreat into a msical fantasy world (not that most of the album isn’t!), chirpy keyboard sounds and guitars fluttering about as Kathryn dreamily sings, “As I sit and wonder why…” over and over, her voice almost a distant whisper, lost among the slowly passing clouds. The song gets going at a pretty good clip once the percussion kicks in, the snare drum rattling and tambourine shaking excitedly, all of these sounds melting together into a bizarre marriage of the pastoral and the frenetic. Traditional verse/chorus structure is avoided here, with the song feeling more like it progresses through three or four different movements before finally dying down (and not before a lovely moment of hazy guitar glory in the climax). As these elements gradually dissipate, leaving little but the bass, acoustic guitar, and some hissing electronics that haven’t quite gotten the hint that the song’s supposed to be fading out. As a result, they sort of hang around and bleed into the opening of the next track.
6. Right Book
The opening of this song is definitely one of the album’s freakiest moments. Kathryn’s wordless wailing sounds metallic, warped, like it’s echoing from pipes placed on all sides of the room. A foreboding piano melody kicks in and you can tell we’re building up to something dramatic and otherworldly. “I know where I am”, she informs us as we lead up to the chorus, “I’ve been here before”. That feeling of missing an opportunity or not being able to recall a dream comes back again in the chorus, which matches up the dark piano with a rather busy electronic beat as she cries, “Take a look and now it’s gone, gone, gone, gone/What are you looking for?/Anyway, well now it’s gone.” This sort of imaginative, open-ended melodrama is the sort of thing that I wish Eisley could still pull off, if they hadn’t started to sound so frustratingly normal these days. At nearly five minutes, this track conjoins perfectly with “All the Things” to provide a light/dark dichotomy that makes a formidable centerpiece for the album.
7. New Frame of Mind
This is one of those songs that sounds sweet and idealistic on first listen, at leats if you’re so caught up in the pretty melody, swirly guitar, and the overall laid-back and atmospheric feel of it. This leaves you completely unprepared for Kathryn’s curiosity to take a decidedly violent turn: “How many throats will be cut ’til I see/What is beyond the breach?” Ooh, shiver. What started as a strange dream quite nearly turns into a battle cry as a highly distorted electric guitar begins to groan, the rhythm switches from comfortable 6/8 to lopsided 5/8, and Kathryn (with her army of self-provided backing vocals, naturally) repeately cries, “We will run through it!” I have no idea what “it” is, but as the song dissolves into scattered pieces of found sound, I can only guess that a fair number of souls were lost on this bizarre musical battlefield.
8. City of Sounds
Here we get just about as “baroque” as anything on the album, with acoustic instruments and a string section taking center stage, plucking out a breezy little tune that gives me a mental picture of a drizzly but colorful autumn afternoon in Kathryn’s hometown of Vancouver. (I’ve never actually been there in the fall. But grant me some creative license here.) It’s a pretty little ode to a wandering soul, with the exploration sounding quite lovely and adventurous, and yet there’s a definite sadness in the realization that it can never end: “Home is where I cannot go.” In the bridge she seeks comfort, with two or three of her gently pining: “Hold my head up on your shoulder.” It’s the closest thing to a romantic angle that Bright and Vivid ever seeks out, sort of like the sun peeking through and providing a bit of clarity and solace in the midst of the fascinating confusion.
9. Five More Years
Kathryn has probably seeded my imagination here by opening this song with the sound of rushing water and metallic clanging like someone banging on pipes. The busy strings and old-timey male backing vocals give the song a giddy, children’s song sort of feeling (helped out a great deal by nonsense like “Look what I’ve found/One for every lost vowel sound”). I keep thinking of Finding Nemo, for some strange reason, probably because the music is a bit… oh, I don’t know, beach-y. It’s relaxed and yet there’s this feeling of urgency to the lyrics, as Kathryn continually realizes, “I need more time”, asking herself if the next five years of a relationship are going to be productive, or just a lot of nonsense that will leave her wondering if the time couldn’t have been spent better. (That’s my best guess. The lyrics are, by their nature, a bit non-sequitur and even slightly unglued, so I’m doing the best I can to describe the overall mood here.)
10. Younger than We’ve Ever Been
The final song feels like it’s going to be another dirge like the opening track from the sustained Wurlitzer note that opens it, but the mood quicks shifts to focus on fluttery, synthetic keyboard sounds, and it’s those two instruments, plus rolling drums, that seem to fight for control of this song as it rolls about on the open sea and Kathryn fights to “Steady, steady, steady the wheel”. A real string section finally takes over for the bridge, adding another unexpected element to the song’s subtle drama. Musically, I’m really not sure how I would even classify this, and even though it’s not an overly loud song, choosing instead to close the album on a reserved, graceful note (well, at least until Kathryn does an excited little run on the piano keys at the last second), it’s definitely one of those “mad genius” moments where I struggle to identify the sources of all the different sounds floating into my eardrums.
But then, you know how I am. What other listeners hear as needless clutter, as having too many cooks in the kitchen, I hear as playful experimentation, and that’s why I’m often drawn to these sorts of “everything but the kitchen sink” side projects. Even coming from a group as offbeat as The New Pornographers, Bright and Vivid is a testament to Kathryn Calder’s unique, exploratory nature, and while I’m certain it probably won’t get as much press as some of her bandmates’ other projects, I definitely think it’s worth seeking out if you like the kind of music that paints a big, multicolored sky in front of you and then asks you to look up at it and scratch your head.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
One Two Three $1.25
Who Are You? $2
Turn a Light On $1.25
Walking in My Sleep $1.50
All the Things $1.25
Right Book $1.75
New Frame of Mind $1.25
City of Sounds $1.50
Five More Years $1.50
Younger than We’ve Ever Been $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.