For those who expressed trepidation upon news that the New Pornographers were replacing the much-loved Neko Case with Carl Newman’s niece Kathryn Calder while touring, all doubts were thrown by the wayside when young Ms. Calder proved to be an exceptional fill-in, holding her own on such Neko standards as “Letter from an Occupant” and “All for Swinging You Around”. Calder’s tenure as a member of the band has gone on to benefit her other band, Immaculate Machine, which has become a regular opening band for its labelmates. Better yet, though, after initially attracting a small indie audience with its innocuous blend of polite vocal hooks and inoffensive arrangements, the Victoria, British Columbia, trio is now making a serious stab at a substantial piece of the Canadian indie pop pie thanks to a bold third album that draws a great deal of influence from Uncle Carl.
While the band’s previous efforts were never short of ebullient performances and the layered vocal harmonies of co-vocalists Calder (keyboards), Brooke Gallupe (guitar), and Luke Kozlowski (drums), songs like “Broken Ships”, “On/Off”, and “So Cynical” struggled to find those brilliant little hooks that the Pornographers make seem so effortless, and ended up sounding tentative and slightly forced as a result. A couple years of touring with Canada’s greatest pop export seems to have paid off in a big way, though, as Immaculate Machine’s Fables has hooks aplenty, delivered by a band that sounds tighter and more confident than it ever has before.
Like Newman’s best moments, the lyrics to snappy opening track “Jarhand” are decidedly ambiguous, but the song boasts a melody that’s as effervescent as it is incessant, not to mention an inexplicable pub chant led by (again, inexplicably) Franz Ferdinand singer Alex Kapranos and UK band the Cribs, making it one of those great little songs we all sing along to, even though we have no idea what they’re going on about. Calder’s voice soars on the track. Conversely, she heads in a completely opposite direction on the lovely “Blinding Light”, singing tenderly over the rippling tones of a Rhodes piano. It’s no question that Calder’s voice is the band’s greatest asset, and the album is as its best when she’s front and center. “Northeastern Wind” is an excellent sketch of life on the road, Gallup adding melodic fills and discordant drones as Calder croons with an entrancing combination of wistfulness and exhaustion, adding wry little prairie-referencing asides such as, “I’ve never been so glad to see Regina before”. The languid “Roman Statues” has her spouting cryptic conversational excerpts, but sells it with her gentle vocal delivery.
Gallupe manages to hold his own well on the urgent, nervous “Pocket”, straining his voice like Hot Hot Heat’s Steve Bays, and his vocal collaboration with Kozlowski is effective on “Small Talk”, but every time Calder enters the fray, it’s like sunlight suddenly emerging from behind the clouds. Consequently, the boy-girl duets are especially successful. The contagious “Dear Confessor” continues in the same West Coast indie pop mold as “Jarhand”, Calder and Gallupe offsetting each other nicely. Gallupe’s guitar adds some heft to the darker “Old Flame”, underscored by Kozlowski’s fluid drum fills before the song veers off in a very Franz Ferdinand-like bridge midway through. “Nothing Ever Happens” is a perceptive look at smalltown life, but its lyrical ennui is offset by a disarmingly upbeat arrangement, Calder and Gallupe making the chorus of “Nothing ever happens in my town” sound exalting. Meanwhile, “C’mon Sea Legs” manages to sound downright poignant as it builds to a grandiose, cinematic climax.
Produced by the ubiquitous Vancouver duo of Dave Carswell and John Collins, and containing string arrangements by the similarly ubiquitous session player/scorer Owen Pallett, Immaculate Machine’s Fables is the assured step forward many of us had been hoping from the band, a consistent album with enough catchy songs to make the rest of the indie pop world envious. For those who find the New Pornographers’ Challengers too understated, they had best seek this mighty fine disc out.