As a member of both The New Pornographers and Immaculate Machine, Kathryn Calder spends most of her time playing music that’s best heard with the volume cranked. And with the New Pornographers in particular, it’s music best heard when the listener is looking to have as much fun as a rock band can make possible. But when separated from the glam rock drama or the power pop energy, Calder is a much more understated singer-songwriter. With the focus squarely on her voice and her elegant, piano-based melodies, she’s a far more delicate performer, only occasionally prone to a big rock crescendo, which still happens from time to time on her full-length debut, Are You My Mother?
On an album with a backstory such as Are You My Mother?, however, a more elegant and somber tone is warranted. Written during a two-year period in which Calder was taking care of her own terminally ill mother, Mother is reflective and bittersweet, far from the epic rock ‘n’ roll production of Together, but by no means as gut-wrenching an ordeal as The Antlers’ Hospice. Rather, it’s a soft and tender album, one that’s as beautiful in its songwriting and performance as it is in its sentiment.
Calder eases the listener in gently, with the minor key twinkle of “Slip Away” setting a tearjerky stage for what ultimately becomes an album of strongly crafted pop songs that swing from the stark and sad to the quirky and upbeat. “Slip Away” is a little bit of both, however, starting off a fragile ballad before ushering in a surprise power pop chorus. On the sweet and simple “Low,” Calder’s gentle coo resembles that of Jenny Lewis at her most restrained, and the super fun “If You Only Knew” even kind of sounds like The New Pornographers unplugged (which is a capital idea if anyone’s paying attention…). However, the album’s strongest song is “Arrow,” a perfectly gorgeous ballad that finds Calder living up to the songwriting of bandmates A.C. Newman and Neko Case. It’s simply one of the prettiest things to be released all year.
Are You My Mother? is fairly short and often quite subtle, which is less a complaint than a reminder that an album this delicate and stripped-down sometimes takes a few listens before the melodies stick. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair that this album is unlikely to avoid comparisons to Calder’s bigger, louder band, but based on these ten songs, she can clearly hold her own.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.