The most striking moment on Kathryn Calder's solo debut comes early. Halfway through the prettily subdued opener, "Slip Away," the song bursts unexpectedly free of its gently dappled piano tones and measured calm, the drums kick into rollicking gear, and Calder lets loose a joyous, irresistible, wordless vocal line strikingly like the ones her uncle, Carl Newman, used to write for Neko Case to sing with the New Pornographers. But those glorious, fleeting seconds (the eruption happens again later in the song) are the closest Are You My Mother? comes to the unbridled power pop/rock favored both by that group (of which Calder has become an increasingly active member) and by Immaculate Machine, the band of high-school chums turned indie rock pros that was until recently her primary outfit. Somewhere between a "traditional" singer/songwriter album and an exercise in one-woman popcraft à la Newman's band-based solo records, Mother finds Calder alternating between rhythmically driven uptempo numbers (the peppy, noodly two-step "Castor and Pollux"; the frantic, somewhat slapdash-sounding "A Day Long Past Its Prime") and mellower, more introspective fare. She strikes a happy medium on the folksy, metrically quirky "If You Only Knew," a jaunty singalong complete with handclaps and shambling, desultory group percussion, and on the breezy "Follow Me into the Hills," which manages to suggest both loping acoustic country and tiki-lounge exotica with its mandolin breaks, swaying tropical beat, and big twangy guitar. But by and large, in spite of Calder's rocking pedigree, Mother is generally most effective at its most restrained. With repeated listens, cuts like the autumnal, string-laden "Down the River" and the wistful waltzes "Arrow" and "So Easily" (the former a piano-based lilt, the latter stripped down to the sparsest picked acoustic guitar notes and featuring an understated harmony from Case) stand out as the album's most resonant, if only because their sparer settings allow Calder's finest gifts -- the strength of her melodies and the girlish sweetness of her winsome vocals -- to shine through most clearly. Despite its poignant back-story -- Calder recorded the album at her family home in Victoria while caring for her ailing mother, who died a year before its release -- Mother's emotional impact tends to be more indirect and evocative than specific and tangible. Its varied but always thoughtful musical character, as much as its nuanced, sometimes ambiguous lyrics, make it feel like an understated, vital reminder to bring a gentle approach to life's struggles.
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AllMusic Review by K. Ross Hoffman