Friday, July 30, 2010

Alone Together

New Pornographers - Together (Matador)
Kathryn Calder - Are You My Mother? (File Under: Music)

The fifth album from Canadian supergroup New Pornographers appears to have been rather casually dismissed by British rock critics. Perhaps it's simply because it's easy to take a band for granted once they've got five albums into their career. It could be because their previous album, 2007's 'Challengers', with its heavy-handed orchestrations, was a little plodding and overwraught. It's worth stepping back and taking stock though. Did anyone seriously expect that the New Pornographers, a band who hardly ever all appear on one stage at the same time, would manage to produce five albums?

After 'Challengers', 'Together' is quite simply a breath of fresh air. The crisp, crunchy opener 'Moves' provides a timely reminder of just how distinctive and sophisticated a pop songwriter AC Newman is. The album contains some of their most infectious and irresistible songs to date. 'Valkyrie in the Roller Disco' is every bit as glorious as its title - shimmering, shiny and wonderfully slow-building. It may be their finest song. 'Up In The Dark' is pounding power-pop. 'Your Hands (Together)' is a colossal tease - leaving us primed for a full on rock shuffle beat that never arrives. Dan Bejar contributes the delightful jangle of 'Silver Jenny Dollar' and 'If You Can't See My Mirrors'. The sound throughout is colossal - cymbals seem to crash from all directions, the guitars chime beautifully.

'Together' eschews the self-importance that occasionally marred 'Challengers'. It seems that the band have rediscovered their characteristic effervescence. As a consequence, it makes for joyful listening. It's certainly sugary - the New Pornographers remain a band best consumed in small doses. Within itself, this is another fine record with a big, bold sound.

Even better though is the debut solo album from Kathryn Calder, a member both of The New Pornographers and the chronically underrated Immaculate Machine. Calder has done a great job in the New Pornographers in taking over vocal duties in Neko Case's absence at live shows, although her voice is identifiable for being more understated and less imposing than Case's. Whilst 'Are You My Mother?' occasionally traverses similar power-pop terrain to that claimed by her other bands, it's very much an individual, very personal work. It also benefits from a broader dynamic range and greater stylistic diversity. Calder is as comfortable singing a tender piano ballad as she is quixotic, unpredictable indie-pop songs such as 'Slip Away'.

The album was recorded in Calder's childhood home and was thematically informed by the two years Calder spent caring for her terminally ill mother. It can't have been an easy experience to make this music - which is why it's all the more impressive that 'Are You My Mother' is in essence such a life-affirming record. It contains songs of loss and grief ('Arrow', 'Down The River'), but it is also stoical, mature and ultimately hopeful. The lush, determined rush of 'Castor and Pollux' might be the best example of this.

With little in the way of recording technology, the help of a few friends (including members of Ladyhawke, Frog Eyes and New Pornographers), and some household items recycled as percussion instruments, Calder has made a rich, powerful sounding album. Her songwriting is offbeat, melodic and sophisticated. She pays careful attention to instrumentation - the mandolin on 'Follow Me Into The Hills' elevates the song. The ragged percussion gives 'If You Only Knew' an energy and collective spirit. Her melodies flow gracefully in elegant phrases, and her calm, sometimes soothing voice conveys insight. 'Are You My Mother?' is a tremendously accomplished debut that suggests that, with the help of a little publicity, Calder could eclipse the achievements of her colleagues.

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