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Review: Alex Calder – Strange Dreams

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As Canadian musician Mac DeMarco becomes more famous with each passing day, it only seems fair to give his friend and former bandmate Alex Calder some consideration. While Calder and DeMarco are both still making lo-fi retro-pop in the vein of their former band, Makeout Videotape, Strange Dreams exhibits just how different the styles of DeMarco and Calder have become, despite their similar inclinations towards dousing their music with reverb and general sound-warping. Of the two, Calder seems the most bent on making his music considerably less clean-cut—while DeMarco has garnered widespread acclaim from critics and casual listeners alike for crafting accessible guitar-pop with distinct verses and choruses, Calder’s music is hardly so straightforward. If DeMarco’s most recent release Salad Days inspired critics to aptly compare him to singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, a quirky-yet-accessible pop guru, then Calder must be further out on the singer-songwriter spectrum than DeMarco is; Calder’s music seems to draw from more free-form sources of inspiration, his sound recalling various 60’s psychedelic outfits such as Jefferson Airplane or 13th Floor Elevators. This approach leads to a few overly odd moments—the nearly formless track “The Morning” comes to mind—but Calder’s strangeness also produces some of the most compelling dream-pop in recent memory. While many similar artists develop their music with a sense of urgency or meticulousness, Calder instead coasts along in a relaxed haze, an approach resulting in languidly-paced and lush-sounding tracks like “Retract”.

Calder seems to be at his absolute best, however, when he takes all his unique ideas and compresses them into taut, simple pop songs, an approach that works extremely well on Strange Dreams. The appealing nature of such songs speaks to Calder’s greatest strength, which is his ability to make complete songs out of very little material—by following Deerhunter’s songwriting method of pairing a couple catchy phrases with some ethereal sighs, Calder manages to write some pop gems that even Bradford Cox would envy. Indeed, many of the songs on Strange Dreams would not sound out of place on any given Deerhunter record, such as the punchy “Marcel”;  likewise, the simple “Lola” exemplifies Calder’s gift for making great pop without over-thinking, the song’s lyrics consisting solely of Calder saying the titular name and drifting into a wispy falsetto. While Strange Dreams may seem to be too densely lo-fi for the masses, “Lola” and other relatively conventional songs help ground the otherwise disorienting album, providing stable, accessible alternatives to the wonky material surrounding them. Calder does it best when he keeps it simple, and when the simple, single-ready material being produced is as good as the music Calder makes, simplicity is hardly a bad approach.