Pornographer in the Mist
As Lindsay Buckingham, Henry Rollins and that Filipino guy who’s currently the lead singer of Journey can tell you, getting hired as a soundalike is a really weird way to kick off your career.
This is especially true when your audience expects you to emulate the voice and stage presence of Neko Case, as was the case (eh?) in 2005 when a young Canadian named Kathryn Calder elected to fill in for The New Pornographers’ eccentric frontwoman/resident fortune teller. So I guess you could say that The Newpornographers called…er…in for a favor? Fuck, I don’t know.
Anyway, Calder’s previous two solo outings both landed in the predictable area between the Pornographers’ crisp, futurist power pop and her former group Immaculate Machine’s hyperactive blend of The Pretenders, The Replacements and pre-Eno Talking Heads. Her 2015 eponymous release is hardly cut from the same traditionalist cloth, however. Computerized bells, hand clap snare drums and other shimmering synth sounds form the bulk of the serene mist through which Calder wades for forty minutes; remnants of the guitar playing that carried her first two albums dot the tranquil landscape of “Slow Burning” like floating flecks of ash in the aftermath of some unheard, catastrophic explosion.
The metronomic rattle of either tambourine or hi-hat cymbals is the sole beacon of texture amidst the gentle haze of atmospherics and synthesizers that is “Beach” – reclusive melancholia in the vein Bon Iver’s For Emma, only with all the dirt, detritus, guitars and pine needles scrubbed out of the finished product. “Take A Little Time” threatens to relapse into the territory of Calder’s beloved 1980s new wave, with its jumpy bass line that giddily recalls Blondie, decorative guitar and breathily crooned chorus – but it never quite musters the guts.
“Blue Skies” is what one would imagine a Moody Blues record sounds like after downing three Ambien with a shot of codeine.
The scattered drum pad sounds that begin “When You See My Blood” foster the illusion of motion, thrumming bass oscillations eventually turning to muted barre chords and crashing, lumbering percussion. The crescendo is straight out of an Explosions in The Sky opus, with some coy crooning and a couple extra layers of Roland, Korg and Hammond (and maybe one of those three-string Japanese shamisen instruments?) draped over the din for good measure.
Calder’s self-titled album truly leaves no contemporary alternative stone left unturned, but never quite sees fit to commit to any one style, even in the context of a single song. While a post-punk rhythm section trundles on behind her on “My Armour,” you can practically hear Calder hiding behind her downtrodden, Ian Curtis-style vocals, audibly avoiding the gaze of her audience. However, she departs from that pretty quickly, once again swallowed up the subtle, wavering synths adorned with her wounded songbird chirps.
I can almost guarantee you’ll need a nap by this album’s halfway mark, which is, coincidentally, the point at which Calder’s shtick unravels from too much repetition. “Pride By Design” and “Song in Cm” blend into one bland opaque milkshake of a six minute suite, while “Arm in Arm” sounds like the lead vocal track of a Norah Jones-style singer songwriter being played over an experimental ambient film score. Written out, that sounds like it could so cool.
Kathryn Calder seems like she/it is trying to align it/herself with singer/songwriters like Ingrid Michaelson, Regina Spektor, and other such whimsical waifish women of the music world. The smattering of bass-accentuated guitar even tricked me into hoping that Calder might jump the fragile gates of ambient pop into PJ Harvey territory. But alas, this is an album that fails to reward listeners hoping for change.