Supergroups are peculiar entities in that they often end up sounding like the egos of their stars battling it out for the listener’s attention. I would guess this is the reason why a band like New Pornographers has always sought to distance itself from such a term. Although it’s true that many of the members of the band had solo projects or previous band experience (Dan Bejar’s Destroyer, Neko Case and Carl “A.C.” Newman’s solo careers), The New Pornographers was many of these indie stars’ first widely successful project, where they encouraged each other to expand out in their solo careers. This open and inspiring environment was what Kathryn Calder (at only 18 years of age) was welcomed into when she officially replaced Neko Case back in 2006—so when she launched her solo career with her first solo album last year, it didn’t come as much of a surprise.
Where that first album of hers, Are You My Mother?, was incredibly personal and introspective, Calder’s sophomore album is much more open and outward-looking. According to Calder herself, Are You My Mother? was an album that she wanted to record for her dying mother at the time, and that deep personal emotion could be plainly heard, bearing itself on each and every song from that album. As a follow-up, Bright and Vivid finds Calder exploring wider sonic landscapes that range from cutesy synth-pop (“Who Are You?”) to more experimental indie rock (“New Frame of Mind”, “All The Things”). While I usually commend artists for branching out, some of the risks she takes on Bright and Vivid just don’t convince me that she is sold on these ideas either.
The album starts with “One, Two, Three” which features these noisy, distorted guitars that come in swelling and layering on top of each other in a way that wouldn’t sound so out of place in a Sonic Youth album. Although even the vocals are a bit distorted, Calder sings a fantastic melody in the verse of “One, Two, Three” that turns and spins in unexpected ways. Easily one of my favorites off the album, this is a song that shows off Calder’s daring new musical persona that is both sweet and catchy, but also dirty and distorted. Unfortunately, not all of the songs on Bright and Vivid manage to strike that same balance.
The following song, “Who Are You?”, fits more into the “synth-pop” category, with its loud, bombastic drums and synthesized vocal samples taking the spotlight. However, the production choices here are not nearly as compelling as the ones on the opening track, as the track’s in-your-face drums and mish-mash of synthesizer/guitar parts just never fit together into the kind of song Calder is trying to craft. Throughout the album, these distorted drum samples appear over and over (sounding a bit like the ones Lykke Li used on her recent album) but often end up being more irritating than energetic. “Right Book” is another track that has this same problem, featuring those same distorted electronic drums and reverb-heavy vocals that never really sound like they belong in the same song.
Not surprisingly, the album’s softer moments are where Calder’s unique voice and great ear for songwriting get to truly shine. Songs like “New Frame of Mind” and “City Of Sounds” look back at Calder’s adolescence with a tender kind of nostalgia, where “Turn A Light On” is a particularly great track whose strumming guitars and light percussion reference The Shins’ “New Slang” in a way. These softer but still sonically interesting songs had me wishing Calder wasn’t so eager to grow up and prove herself.
In an interview with Straight speaking about her first album, Calder admitted that, “I was very aware of the fact that there would be an immediate comparison, and that the record would have to be good. And that if it wasn’t good, if it really wasn’t good, I would be judged because of that.” And while she has certainly set herself apart as more than a Neko Case “fill-in”, I still find myself liking her most when her music comes from a more natural and honest place. Bright and Vivid feels like the work of an artist eager to grow and mature; I just wish she’d be okay with where she is right now too.