by M. Lewis Barker
Most girls, when they pick up an acoustic guitar, are content to either imitate Taylor Swift or Ingrid Michaelson. They don’t sing with their real voice, opting instead to imitate the pronunciations and inflections of a favorite singer. With every newcomer, I see more and more homogeny. (Not that boys are much better, about 3/4ths of every open mic night is filled with Jake Johnson would-be’s.) There are very few girls (and guys, for that matter) who simply like to kick some ass.
Michelle Kennedy’s brainchild Calm Paradox joins Provo’s White Elephant and Salt Lake’s SLFM as an exception to that rule. She may have started as another singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar and a few chords, but she knows the beauty of an overdriven guitar and a solid drum beat. Calm Paradox is reminiscent of indie rockers such as the New Pornographers and Metric. She writes pop songs then cranks up the guitar and rocks out.
In less than half an hour, her indie (and I mean that in its original sense) album How to Mind (which you can listen to at http://calmparadox.bandcamp.com/) shows the very promising start of what could eventually be Utah’s favorite alt rocker. The album is littered with fuzz, synths, piano, and fairly original sounds. It’s like she tailor made it all for me, knowing my musical sensibilities. Yet it’s still very accessible and could appeal to a very wide demographic. Most songs don’t break the three minute mark, giving us just enough to want a little more and never tiring out.
I really love the album and have listened to it quite a few times already, but unfortunately for Calm Paradox, playing the kind of music that I like also means that I am extra critical
There’s a certain level of monotony to the album, though clever instrumentation helps keep things interesting. A few songs in, the melodies and rhythms start to feel repetitive, with some exceptions. “Rich Kid” has a great, catchy chorus, and “This May” has the album’s most distinctive and engaging melody. For the most part, I can perfectly imagine these songs being played by any number of female guitarists/singers. “Rites of Passage” are the most notable examples of this, being little more than an acoustic guitar, vocals, and piano. It works since the rest of the album is more energetic, but it’s also the key to seeing the origin behind the rest of the album.
What makes How to Mind special is the way Kennedy presents her music. The girl can sing, and more importantly, she doesn’t fake her voice. One of my chief grievances in music is when a singer does his or her best to imitate someone else’s style (as complained about in the beginning of this review). You can tell that it’s fake, and it shows a certain level of insecurity (whether conscious or not) from the vocalist. Kennedy knows her own voice and displays it proudly. It’s just so damn refreshing!
The instrumentation compliments her songwriting. Without it, she would just be another girl and guitar. “Barcelona” and “Sunrise” have some of my favorite arrangements. The former uses pauses to great effect and latter includes some subtle strings to accentuate the melody. Occasionally there are some hiccups: my least favorite song on the album, “Dystopia”, has some guitars that could use another few takes in the studio. I would like to hear what Kennedy’s songs would sound like with some more experimental instrumentation. Right now it’s still fairly generic. The songs are open enough that you could do almost anything with them at this point. Some more melodies and harmonies would add some wonderful color to How to Mind.
The lyrics can be… lacking. They feel more like placeholders for the music than any kind of poetry unto themselves. If you stuck a lyric sheet in front of me, I would be very surprised by how good the music is in comparison. It’s that voice that gives them meaning. Although I can say I am a fan of the line “I’d rather share a married man than have a cheating asshole who’s all mine” from “Boots”. She has clever lines like that now and then, such as “as tangible as death can get” and “let’s use friction to heat our frozen lips” from “Influenza Tiger”. Still, those moments are few.
My favorite song is the album’s closer “This May”. It would be stronger at an earlier point in the album. And I wish it were longer than it is, building up to a bigger climax and finishing out strong. It shows a lot of promise for the young artist, and I hope it is indicative of things to come.
I am a big fan of Calm Paradox’s debut effort. I may have sounded like an overly critical know-it-all in this review, but only because I see a lot of potential in what Kennedy is doing and hope that she constantly improves. The album is very enjoyable and very clean. It’s too clean, actually. Overproduced. Calm Paradox deserves a dirtier, rawer sound. I’d like to see what she can do live with a full band. I know that I will be at the show, right at the front.