Alex Calder, formerly drummer in oddball Vancouver duo Makeout Videotape, has more in common musically with his former collaborator Mac DeMarco than an entry on his musical CV. The two might have quit work working together back in 2011, but on the evidence of their two recently released recordings, they retain a distinctly shared vision. Both have a penchant for making warped, woozy 70s-style pop music, in the vein of Ariel Pink: sunny yet water-damaged songs, which sound like they’ve been unearthed after years spent in a dusty, poorly-stored briefcase. Even the high, chiming guitar tones on each collection of songs sound similar.
That’s not to say that Calder’s new EP, Time, is a carbon copy of DeMarco’s full-length from late last year, 2. DeMarco’s album, for all its eccentricity and ramshackle slacker vibe, is at heart a fairly direct and melodic collection of tunes. The same can’t quite be said of Calder’s work. Time, for some good and not a little bad, lacks the loose, goofy energy of DeMarco’s work, and is overall a far more distant and abstracted set of songs.
Guitar is essentially the album’s lead instrument, certainly more so than the singing. Piercing guitar notes, simultaneously distorted and distinct, overlay and largely obscure the singing on most tracks. It’s an odd style of playing though - slow, deliberate, sometimes quite rudimentary, with quite long spaces between most notes, and often timed to overlap and obscure the vocals. The guitar on most tracks also has an unusual ringing sound, with minimal effects applied other than frequent bending of the notes. Very odd, though Calder does has enough of an ear for melody to pull it off.
Percussion on most tracks is gentle, almost subliminal, though occasionally you hear other background sounds—“Location”, for instance, has an odd wee-woo bit under the chorus that manages to sound almost like a theremin. Calder’s vocals—sometimes a flat, depressed murmur, sometimes a high, soft, uncertain falsetto—largely fade into the background. There are virtually no backup vocals—you don’t need backup to backup.
When it works, as on the opening track “Suki and Me”, these spare, woozy arrangements can be strangely compelling. That track is by far the most upbeat, enjoyable and fully-formed on the album, with a melody that hangs around long enough to be savored and a pleasantly loopy set of lyrics. The title track starts off with a wavering bit of guitar distortion, over which a heavy, repeating bass appears that sounds somehow dirty, it’s low and cracked and just slightly too fuzzy. This kind of constant undermining of expectations is interesting, as long as there’s a payoff somewhere.
Everywhere, though, there are artificial, inexpert barriers set up. Odd stop-start rhythms, guitars that keep slipping behind the beat or bleeding into one another, strange hazy screeches that appear unannounced in the middle of songs, vocals that are sung too high and mixed too low to scan. It could be interesting, but mostly just makes for uneasy, periodically infuriating listening, and it’s not really clear what any of it really amounts to. Calder might be endearingly low-key in his ambitions, but I suspect he’s got more to say than this. Sometimes, listening to Time you just want to suggest: get to the point already.
Ultimately, there’s a sense that there aren’t quite enough interesting moments to justify all the abstraction and amateurism. It feels like there are some real, serious songs here struggling to get out, but everything on Time is so hazy, fragmented. It comes across like a collection of simple, catchy tunes that has been cut up and inexpertly pieced back together.
In the process of that deconstruction and reassembly it feels like some of the notes have been left on the cutting room floor. What’s left is only the most basic essence of each song. That’s interesting, in it’s own way, but is it enough? I wouldn’t rule out Calder producing something genuinely excellent at some point with these materials, but right now I’m not quite sure it is.
// Notes from the Road
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