Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Kathryn Calder: Album and Concert

The great thing about being a fan of a band that's billed as a "supergroup" is that you instantly get five or six more bands and solo acts to delve into.  Neko Case, of course, has an amazing voice (she and Jenny Lewis are almost certainly the best female vocalists in the business today), but her disregard for the "song" when she's singing by herself makes it a little tough to get excited about her solo work.  A.C. Newman's own solo work has enough of the energy and creativity of his contributions to the New Pornographers that I'd pretty much just rather listen to the New Pornographers.  And Dan Bejar is a talented guy too, but his slightly off-kilter vocals on his slightly self-satisfied tracks usually end up as my least favorite on any given New Pornographers album.

Now Kathryn Calder is launching a solo career of her own, which I sort of knew about but didn't pay a lot of attention to until Stephanie (of "whitest day of my life" fame) touted her album as "really really good".  Calder seems determined to show the world that she's a whole lot more than "that other girl singer that the New Pornographers have who's not Neko Case".  Because she was originally part of the band as a touring replacement for Neko Case, and now sings a lot of harmony with her, it can be tough to disentangle what vocal parts are Neko Case's or Kathryn Calder's (or, for that matter, A. C. Newman's falsetto's).

That's why it's such a pleasant surprise to listen to her 2010 album Are You My Mother? and hear that Calder has a lovely mezzo-soprano that weaves effortlessly among Pornographers-style power pop, "conventional" acoustic singer-songwriter, stripped-down piano ballads, and jangly indie folk.  The entirely "ooh"ed chorus of the first track, "Slip Away," is a statement of Calder's vocal register, and "Low" is a fine song if you're a connoisseur of the deliberately lo-fi keyboard-driven, but it's with the energy of "Castor and Pollux" that the album really hits its stride, and it doesn't let up until somewhere around track eight or nine.

The standout track (if I really have to pick just one from the outstanding middle chunk of this album) is "If You Only Knew," and since I'm such a sucker for both indie folk and unabashedly happy music (not to mention songs that mention places I've lived), that's probably not a huge surprise.  But "Follow Me Into the Hills" is pretty excellent too, and so is "Day Long Past Its Prime," and so is just about everything on the album.  Only one criticism lingers for more than a few seconds, and that's how slightly underproduced many of the tracks feel.  There's actually a really touching story behind that, so maybe we can cut Kathryn Calder some slack here.

The silver lining to wanting a better production value from her album tracks is that when you see Kathryn Calder live, you get it!  In true Canadian indie musician fashion, "Kathryn Calder live" is actually Kathryn Calder plus four or five people playing various instruments and harmonizing all the "ooh"s and "la"s that make her music so delightful.  She proves to be an remarkably talented musician, delivering an outstanding vocal performance on top of deftly switching between guitar and keyboard.

After better fidelity (coupled with convincing live musicianship), the second-best reason that Kathryn Calder in concert is actually better than Kathryn Calder on your iPod is that there's more to listen to.  Three songs showed up that aren't part of Are You My Mother ("One Two Three," something to the effect of "Turn the Light On," and another that I don't think she named), and they were all really really good.  Given that these were described as "new," it seems likely that Calder has a follow-up album in the works, which is nothing but good news.

As can be expected from an artist embarking on the first tour of her solo career, Calder's vocals wavered a bit for the first song or two.  And the band members aren't talented enough stage artists yet that they're comfortable vamping or chatting with the audience for the minute it took Calder to get some tuning issues worked out--or maybe they're awkward indie kids, just like their audience.  But they made up for it by being entertainingly Canadian (confirmed: people from Vancouver actually do say "aboat" instead of "about"!) and having genuine fun on stage.

Going to the show was genuine fun.  Buying a ticket was a genuine deal--not since I was convinced to see Zao and Throwdown back in 2006 have I paid twelve dollars to see a live show.  And between the album, the concert, and the promise of more good solo material, I am now a genuine Kathryn Calder fan.

Currently listening: "Blindness," Metric

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