Pianist and singer Kathryn Calder has seen her role in the New Pornographers increase over the past few years to the point where she often shares lead vocal duties with Neko Case and A.C. Newman. At the same time, Calder’s role in her other band, Immaculate Machine, has noticeably diminished, perhaps in deference to her New Pornos commitments. Somewhere in between playing with two bands, though, Calder found time to both care for her terminally ill mother and record her first solo album. Are You My Mother? was recorded in Lynn Calder’s living room and the album is dedicated to her memory.
Obviously this is a very personal album for Calder, but it rarely descends into maudlin reminiscence or woe-is-me sadness. As you’d expect, Calder’s own songs don’t sound too far removed from the power pop approach of her two bands. There really isn’t much power in her pop, even on the upbeat songs, and her arrangements are simpler than those of the nine-member strong New Pornographers. Most of these ten songs are either quietly pretty or bouncy and fun. If there’s a downside here it’s that Calder is not yet a great songwriter. The songs are good, but they mostly don’t stick with you after the album is over.
What works in Calder’s favor is her excellent voice. She’s a great singer and she seems happy to take the spotlight after being a member of an ensemble for so long. The opening track “Slip Away” is one of the album’s best. A simple piano line and quiet maracas and handclaps accompany a melancholy-sounding vocal as Calder sings about dreams and secrets. The chorus finds her lamenting “Slips away / slips away” before it bursts into joyful “ooo”‘s over an upbeat rock arrangement. The disc’s other highlight is the choral vocals and harmonies of “If You Only Knew”. It’s a buoyant, acoustic guitar and handclap-driven song that has Calder harmonizing with four other women, punctuated with bursts of male backup vocals. But even on the not-quite-as-good songs, there are still winning moments where Calder finds a great melody. “Follow Me Into the Hills” rambles along pleasantly until getting to the refrain, where she soars above the music singing “Follow, fo-o-llow / follow me through the grass.” The creeping ballad “Down the River” would be practically inert musically if it weren’t for Calder’s achingly lovely chorale-style performance.
Since Calder is an active member of other bands and a fixture on the Vancouver music scene, a lot of familiar names pop up as guest players. New Pornographers drummer Kurt Dahle lends some creative low-key drums and percussion to “Slip Away”, while former Immaculate Machine drummer Luke Kozlowski sits in on “Follow Me Into the Hills”. Neko Case provides harmonies on the quiet acoustic ballad “So Easily”, and New Pornos guitarist Todd Fancey also makes an appearance. But this is Calder’s project through and through, so the guests are content to sit in the background. Even Case’s distinctive voice is subdued enough to be almost unrecognizable. Are You My Mother? gives Calder a chance to rise or fall on her own merits, and she mostly rises to the occasion. If the album isn’t a total success, it’s at least a very good effort and hopefully an indication of good things to come.