As the newest New Pornographer, Kathryn Calder faces a special hell of a challenge in dropping her solo debut, Are You My Mother?. It never was going to be easy to stand out among the sea of side project jewels that emerge with welcome regularity from the individual members of that West Coast indie pop institution. A.C. Newman’s The Slow Wonder and Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone, to pick a couple, have earned sales figures and critical fawning that set the bar in the stratosphere for any solo New Pornographer project, but especially so for Calder.
Hired by the New Pornographers to replace Case’s yowling vocals on tour when her exploding solo career often left her otherwise engaged, Calder missed out on some of the band’s most productive years in the first half of the 00s, though she does appear on each album since 2005’s Twin Cinema. What’s more, she’s Mr. Newman’s niece, and you couldn’t fault her for her being a little intimidated at the prospect of having her own project stacked up against those of her uncle and the indie Goddess Queen she was hired to understudy for — not to mention the catalogue of terminally hummable New Pornographer hits that has built up over the last decade largely without her.
It’s probably more fair to compare this project to her own, earlier work than that of her current supergroup mates — to ask how far she’s come and whether she can make it on her own and all those lovely questions. In this she succeeds to a reasonable degree. Are You My Mother? is possessive, intimate, warm and cold by turns. It measures up to the better work she’s done with New Pornographer label/tour mates Immaculate Machine. It offers hope that she’s not doomed to be “the girl in the New Pornographers who isn’t Neko Case”, at least not forever.
Calder is a better singer than songwriter, which is evident in songs like ‘Castor and Pollux’ that expose her Immaculate Machine tendencies toward uneven phrasing and forgettable melodies. In turn she’s a better songwriter than a lyricist, though she deserves plenty of credit for writing an album about her mother’s slow, painful death from Lou Gehrig’s disease without approaching maudlin indulgence. There are tracks like opener ‘Slip Away’ that contain little of musical interest other than Calder’s intimate sigh of a voice.
But as with Immaculate Machine’s Fables, where ‘Jarhand’ and ‘C’mon Sea Legs’ rise powerfully out of the colourless remainder of the album, Are You My Mother? hits a sweet spot once in a while. ‘Arrow’ and ‘Low’ are both steady, gentle pieces featuring something approaching catchiness, which was at times an Achilles’ heel for Immaculate Machine. ‘If You Only Knew’, despite an underwhelming production, is a solid pop tune that opens up the possibility of a prominent songwriting role by Calder with the New Pornographers in the future.
These positive moments are particularly gratifying because you can’t help but root for Calder as the album goes on. Are You My Mother? is a little undercooked, but it’s not possible to hate anything in here, and it leaves us wanting to hear more from a young Canadian artist who certainly doesn’t seem to have hit her peak yet.