In Brief: A far mellower set of songs than Bright & Vivid, but it’s not without its noisy surprises. Kathryn’s voice is like a refreshing drink of cool water, and she has a gift for melodies that are simple and yet breathtaking. The slight bits of exotic instrumentation really help to elevate even this record’s sparsest songs above the ordinary.
I was really surprised to find out that Kathryn Calder had put a new record out this year. I just sort of stumbled across it on Spotify when I was looking up a few of her older songs from her second album, Bright & Vivid, to put into playlists. I absolutely adored that album when it was first released, and it’s one of those delightful indie pop gems whose appeal hasn’t faded for me over time. I still feel like I find something new every time I listen to that record, due to all of the weird and wonderful layers of sound underpinning what might otherwise be a bunch of really introverted singer/songwriter tunes. Kathryn is best known as the keyboardist and backing vocalist for The New Pornographers, and even though she’s probably the least attention-grabbing personality of the four singers in that band, it pretty much always brings a smile to my face whenever she gets a lead vocal on one of their songs, or even for a small part of a song. There’s something in the family genes that gives her a knack for surreal and not-necessarily-linear lyrics similar to that of her uncle, bandleader Carl Newman, but with her I get less of a “Hey, look at me being wacky!” vibe, and more of a “Here’s a peek at my cryptic diary” vibe. This never feels exploitative or voyeuristic, because while I can tell her songs are deeply personal and not trying to deflect emotions by way of gimmickry, there’s often a sense of intimacy to her work, as though she’s singing directly to someone she cares about very deeply, even when the lyrics themselves make zero sense to me.
Calder’s third album, which is self-titled, seems to be her mellowest and simplest record at first glance. Her first two albums were released almost back-to-back – Are You My Mother? came out in 2010 and largely spent its time reflecting on her mother’s passing, while the much bolder and more layered Bright & Vivid, released toward the end of 2011, continued in that vein lyrically after her father had also passed. You’d be forgiven for not picking up on that due to how dense the sound got on that record – I immediately fell in love with the innate pop appeal of several of its songs and the weird dissonance of having so many things going on at once, but I could see how it might be an exhausting listen for certain people. With the self-titled record, Kathryn seems to have made a conscious effort to strip down her sound on most of its ten tracks, which means that the old “pile on a bunch of layers until everything escalates into a noisy hubbub” approach that she does still take once or twice makes those songs really stand out from the rest of the pack. The album almost feels a bit disjointed in that sense, because you could turn it up to catch all of the subtle nuances of sound on its first few tracks and then get your eardrums blasted by the climax of the third one. It’s absolutely not what you would expect if you’ve only ever heard her on the New Pornographers’ albums – where most of the material tends to be upbeat and the main thing differentiating one track from the next is who sings lead. But it’s one of those records that rewards the listener’s patience exceedingly well. Where at first I might not hear much but an isolated synthesizer or a vocal melody floating out there all by itself, hinting at a rhythm that never really “kicks in”, after a while the pieces start to come together like unique snowflakes in the gentlest of winter storms, creating a lovely if somewhat insular landscape that really gives the words and emotions expressed in these songs a lot of room to breathe. Only when several of these sparser songs are piled up back-to-back at the end of the album does this approach begin to grow a bit tedious. Just one or two more up-tempo songs might have balanced things out a little better, but then, for all I know, they could have completely wrecked the mood. Kathryn had a whole other arsenal of songs ready to go for this album before she decided to scrap them because they felt too much like “work”. So if this is the result of taking her time and only keeping the songs that she felt were truly inspired, I can’t really argue with it, even if I do ultimately feel that the “wall of sound” approach made Bright & Vivid a stronger album. This isn’t Bright & Vivid and it isn’t meant to be, but it certainly isn’t dark and bland by a long shot.
1. Slow Burn
“Come show me something I can’t see”, Kathryn coos over a cool bed of synthesizers as she welcomes us into the record. This song moves along an a purposefully unhurried pace – no percussion, nothing with any real force to it aside from perhaps the brief vocal crescendo near the end of it. There isn’t a whole let of meat to this one, but it does a great job of setting the mood. It’s like a gentle autumn breeze serving as a harbinger of the winter yet to come.
I’m pretty sure that whatever you were expecting to hear when you saw the title “Beach”, it isn’t this song. Unless you leave far enough north that your beaches are gray and foggy for most of the year. That’s the picture I get in my head when listening to this almost stubbornly restrained track, which would border on tedious if not for the mesmerizing effect of Kathryn’s double-tracked vocals on the chorus and the oboe that chimes in here and there. There’s just enough “quirk” to it to outweigh the gloomy drudgery. Of course it’s meant to be a soft and intimate song, beckoning a loved one to stay with her and to not be in a hurry to go anywhere in particular: “Come a little closer, closer/Stay a little longer now/I need your cool words.” The song doesn’t really reach a climax; it just sort of seeps from chorus to verse and back a few times and then politely stays put. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I’ll admit it certainly not the sort of song I’d think to put at track two after an already slow opening.
3. Take a Little Time
Oh yeah! This is where Kathryn’s more fun-loving side comes out. I feel like she wanted it to be special and meaningful when a song was more upbeat and poppy on this record. This one could rival “Who Are You?” in the catchiness department, though underneath the pulsating organs and the jiggling guitars growing more and more dissonant and full of feedback as the song bleeps and blurps its way forward, there’s something a bit headier going on here. I thought at first that her advising someone to take their time and to deliberately restrain her was moving forward, and that it’s OK, she forgives this person, was a bit of sarcastic commentary on a relationship that had gone south. Watching the video (which is adorable with its mix of pencil-drawn animation and live-action Kathryn being moved around like some sort of a newspaper cutout) made me realize that it’s more about the relationship between artist and listener. Perhaps it’s even a bit of affirmation that she needed to hear from herself as she realized she wasn’t geting the album done in the timeframe she originally expected. So I see this song as acknowledging that it’s OK to go out there, have some real life experience, find something worth being inspired about, and then come back and make the art people are impatiently waiting for you to make. Her vocal delivery sits right there on the borderline between cutesy and mildly sarcastic, so I’m always a bit off my guard listening to this one, and I sort of like that. The overlapping vocal parts and the downright noisy guitar will certainly get your attention if you had drifted off during the first few tracks.
4. Blue Skies
This song feels more “acoustic” to me, even though I think Kathryn’s still playing the electric guitar. It’s stripped back enough to feel a little “folksier” compared to its surrounding, mostly due to the lack of synth and keyboards. It stands out for being a bit more down to Earth, which is ironic for a song called “Blue Skies”, but this isn’t a particularly happy-go-lucky song. I’d say its mood is more stoic. She’s trying to will herself to face the good and the bad, whatever life throws at her, without flinching. But there’s a real sense of weariness to it as she sings with her usual, vulnerable sweetness: “I’ve been out digging bones, and gone for far too long/’Cause it’s just another way to drag my heart around.” Having one’s heart dragged around never sounded so lovely as it does when she harmonizes with herself in the song’s gentle coda.
5. When You See My Blood
This is the song that you’re most likely to have “volume issues” with. It’s almost inaudible at the beginning, and the sound level gets pushed pretty far into the red by the end, so over the course of five minutes, it’s basically playing chicken with your urge to adjust the volume knob. (What? You’re not OCD enough to be annoyed when you have to change the volume multiple times over the course of an album? Fine then.) You can expect from the title that this song’s gonna be a bit creepier than her usual, and I certainly think she sells the haunting atmosphere well with the steadily growing low-end feedback and whatever that sort of Eastern-sounding banjo-like thing is that plunks along as she builds up to the chorus. The lyrics are the main casualty of this murky arrangement – the title rings out loud and clear, but most of the rest of it gets lost amidst the atmosphere. Reading the lyric sheet, none of it is graphic or gory in any way, but it’s certainly foreboding as she sings of dark waves coming to wash her away. When the song finally reaches its crescendo and the guitar, synths, and her voice are all fighting for space, creating a huge brickwall of impenetrable sound, it’s to her credit that the melody still rings out loud and clear, and it feels like she’s coming to some sort of a peace or perhaps even an epiphany: “I’ve never seen a view so wide across that it’s hardly there.” It reminds me of the unexpectedly loud ending of “New Frame of Mind” on her previous album, though this one might be even a bit more unsettling in the way it sneaks up on you.
6. My Armour
Of course I was going to love the rumbling bass line and the driving beat of this song. It’s just inevitable that on a mellow record like this, a song will stand out to me merely for being more upbeat or rhythmic. Some might even find this one a bit repetitive since it’s mostly that same bass line with two basic chords underpinning it, but I really enjoy how the guitar and keyboards build on top of it, and how the song creates this sustained aura of trust and safety as Kathryn sings and invitation to her lover: “Will you lie in my open arms?/Will you be my only armour?” Like “Take a Little Time”, this song’s chorus has no words; unlike that song, it’s Kathryn singing “doo-doo-doo” in the cutest tone of voice she can muster.
7. Song in Cm
I first thought that the title of this one was meant to be read as “Song in Centimeters”. Then I realized that it wasn’t some sort of a subversive commentary on the superiority of Canada and the rest of the world to America when it comes to units of measurement; it’s actually “Song in C Minor”. Which is a great key for a gloomy little meditation on how “You could never be mine”. Kathryn strips back to the basics for this one – spare notes plucked out on the electric guitar, bits of synth that float by ungrounded, and a hint of a steady rhythm but no percussion to speak of. I like the overall atmosphere of it, but it comes up a bit short once I realize there’s no variation to it further in.
8. Pride By Design
There’s a quiet confidence to this song that I like. In an unbroken set of gentler songs that close out the album, this one stands out simply for having a cautious yet steady drum beat to drive its chorus, and I enjoy how the atmospheric synths fill in the gaps before those drums come in on the pre-chorus. Speaking of pre-choruses, this one’s good enough to be an actual chorus, so much that the actual chorus of the song feels more like a bridge, since it changes up the chord progression and gives Kathryn yet another chance to sing in her higher register, and I pretty much always fall head over heels for any instance of that in a song of hers. There’s a sense of slow, yet determined struggle in these lyrics, as if to say that through stubbornness and sheer brute force, two people will work through their most daunting disagreements and come back around to a place of genuine affection and admiration for each other.
9. Arm in Arm
Having two songs back to back that start off with little but bare synthesizers probably wasn’t the best way to make them both stand out. Nevertheless, this one does an effective job of going from a place of isolation, where Kathryn seems to be at an emotional low point and convinced that she can’t fall any further, to a place of security. It’s her husband’s companionship that seems to get her through it, even if she acknowledges how fragile their defenses are against the harsh elements: “Linking hands, arm in arm/Here we are with our little house of cards/Just relying on chance to lay them right.” There’s perhaps nothing more charming on this record than the way she sings “We can’t back out” at the end of the chorus, it’s way she draws out the word “back” into several syllables that makes it incredibly memorable and strangely comforting to sing along with. It’s a quiet anthem, a reassurance that no matter how bleak things get, they’re gonna stick it out together.
The record’s final track is unfortunately its most tedious. At this point the minimal construction of most of the songs is starting to wear on me a bit, and this one in particular seems to crawl forward at a rather stiff pace, its rhythm and its sad electric guitars not really doing much to make the song stand out to me, so I probably haven’t given it the attention it deserves. It’s a bit of a downer ending, at least if I’m reading the lyrics right, because she’s singing about life as though it were a flame slowly wearing down until it gets snuffed out and smoke is all that remains. “Time will smoke us out”, she reminds us forebodingly, but there’s a bit of a silver lining: “But it’s really good to see you here like this.” There’s a fine line between fatalism and romance, is what I guess these last few tracks are saying, and there’s something I respect about a person who is willing to honestly face both sides of that reality.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Slow Burn $1
Take a Little Time $2
Blue Skies $1.25
When You See My Blood $1
My Armour $1.75
Song in Cm $.75
Pride By Design $1.50
Arm in Arm $1.25
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: