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Kathryn Calder - Bright and Vivid

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Artist: Kathryn Calder

Album: Bright and Vivid

Label: File Under Music

Review date: Nov. 11, 2011

Kathryn Calder makes bright, uneasy pop. Its surfaces glitter, its interior a spider-web of hairline fractures. Her second album, following 2010’s Are You My Mother?, explores existential dread in the chipper textures of synthesizer and diva pop.

Calder is mostly known as the newest regular member of The New Pornographers, a band she joined around 2006 through a series of very unusual events. Her mother, adopted as a baby, reconnected with her birth family when Calder was a teen. She was related, it turned out, to Carl Newman. The two families got to know one another, and found that music was common to both. Calder had been in bands since she was a young teenager. She was singing in Immaculate Machine in the mid-2000s when her new half-uncle asked if she would fill in for Neko Case for a few dates. She became a full member of the Canadian quasi-super group and has since participated in Twin Cinemas, Challengers and Together. Accidents of birth aside, Calder probably could have won the slot in a blind audition, so closely does her voice resemble Case’s.

Both Calder and Case have bright, primary color singing styles, their voices almost entirely untouched by vibrato. Both play with pop textures, seeming, at least on the surface, to offer pure accessibility, sweetness and hooks. Yet, interestingly, the two artists subvert this ease in different ways. While Case smolders in the lower registers, Calder flits and swoops in breathy upper atmospheres. Where Case opts for knowing sarcasm and see-right-through-you realism, Calder favors abstraction, complication and intricacy. There is nothing very earthy about Calder. She seems, instead, pure spirit and brainpower. In fact, after Case, the artist she most resembles is another cerebral pop experimenter: Laura Veirs.

Bright and Vivid sets Calder’s pretty voice in complex, multi-layered arrangements, threading through bristling thickets of noise in “One, Two, Three,” weaving among percolating, synth-piping rhythms in “Who Are You?,” twining in self-harmonies and counterpoints in “Turn a Light On.” She favors a 1980s pop sound, with heavily reverb’d drums that punch right through her complications, and glassy, gleaming vocals that hang in the air for a bit before dissolving. She ventures, once or twice, into high pop anthemry, but even here, in “Right Book” or “New Frame of Mind” for instance, a proliferation of ideas complicates ringing, crowing, arena-worthy choruses.

Calder infuses these songs with some surprisingly dark, sad lyrics. She is, perhaps, still working through the death of her mother (which inspired her last album), thinking on “One, Two, Three” about moving on without a parent, imagining a Styx-like crossing on “Who Are You?,” learning to pick up and begin again in “New Frame of Mind.” None of the songs sound particularly sad -- they’re nearly all upbeat and bouncy in tone -- but if you listen to the words, death and alienation are everywhere.

All of which makes for an intriguing stew of thought, feeling and playful melody. Bright and Vivid gives little of itself immediately, but unfolds to a much larger extent over time. Calder, it seems, is one more member of the New Pornographers who is more interesting on her own.

By Jennifer Kelly

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