Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Anna Calvi - Anna Calvi (2011) REVIEW

Anna Calvi, the name, sounds like a premium luxury brand, a perfume, a scarf, a handbag. Anna Calvi, the singer-songwriter, sounds like a Southern Gothic desperado of a guitar-heroine with a powerful, haunted and evocative voice. Italian musician names can be very misleading, especially for women, it's hard to sort them out just by name : Nina Nastasia, Cecilia Bartolli, Lisa Germano, Gabriella Cilmi, Emiliana Torrini, Laura Pausini, they could all be opera singers, or the Italian girl-next-door, because everybody got one, and some could be pornstars, but rock musicians? Dunno. Well, Anna Calvi is obviously one, and after Marnie Stern, we got another guitar virtuoso on our hands, like Marnie Stern, she brings a different approach and genuine sound to her instrument. "That pursuit of difference is clear in her live performances, where you can see her distinctive, circular playing style – half picking and half strumming – up close. She adopted the technique, she says, to make her guitar sound like 'a piano going up and down'" (1).

The sounds she's creating with her Fender Telecaster are very varied and already her own, always a warm and broad sound, haunting and atmospheric. The album opens with the instrumental "Rider To The Sea" and that guitar coming out of a dark western, somewhere between Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino, whose soundtrack would be played by the son of Ry Cooder and Tom Verlaine. Yeah, the father-to- son-thing is easy but sometimes funny. Tom Verlaine's guitar sound is maybe the most encountered reminiscence on this album, but then a more relaxed and warmer Tom. For the rest, it's pretty hard to pigeonhole that peculiar sound of her, there are elements of surf music, flamenco, jazz, blues of course, all in all very few British influences. Anna Calvi is a Londoner and maybe here lies a reason for her to be very often compared to PJ Harvey; they both don't really sound English, besides they're both driven by lust and passion which brings an intensely romantic nature to their songs. Listening to that album, it's no surprise Nick Cave himself requested her presence to open the last Grinderman's gigs around Europe, he must have find something of the lascivious and heroic PJ Harvey circa "To Bring You My Love" in Anna Calvi, the later being more respectable, less femme fatale but not less seductive.

Anna Calvi's distinctive, throaty, slightly theatrical and operatic vocals can be an acquired taste which the attentive listener will already acquire after the second listen of the album. These vocals, like the rest of the album, are a grower, they feel very contrived and mannered at first but very quickly they sound natural and emotional. The same phenomenon applied to the album as a whole. On the first couple of listens, the album sounds a little too gentle, polished, like Anna and her two musicians didn't dare to let go, it even takes a while before realizing that album seems to be recorded live in studio (Long time PJ Harvey musical companion produced). Then, little by little, all the sounds are opening themselves out, blooming, more and more alive... and kicking. The instrumentation is quite sober, Anna, her voice and her guitar, are accompanied by drummer Daniel Maiden-Wood and multi-instrumentalist Mally Harpez, who played all kind of bells, shakers and even harmonium to create a discreet but all around acoustic soundscape. There is no bass or at least not that I know of. This could be a reason why this album seems almost too gentle at first, that music is surely not full of distortion and electric noises, it's no hardcore nor garage punk, but above all there is no booming bass to flesh things out, Anna's guitar and Daniel's drums are in charge and they're doing a tremendous job without even trying too hard. The band Anna Calvi's music possessed some very orchestral quality, mostly thanks to the guitar : "I like a lot of 20th-century classical music, Anna says, so I try to create orchestral elements with my guitar. Classical music is all about tension and release. Pop music does that too but in bite-size form; in classical music, it's huge. I wanted to exploit that."(1)

Anna Calvi is a self-thaught guitarist, I thought such musicians didn't exist anymore, and learned by listening to Django Reinhardt, among others. The same for her vocals, but way later, and by listening to Edith Piaf and Nina Simone (1). Anna Calvi's very first single was the song "Jezebel" (not on the album), a song originally written by Wayne Shanklin, but made famous by French chanteuse Edith Piaf. All these doesn't seem very rock'n'roll, however the album contains its share of electricity and energy, but somewhere closer to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds during the eighties, minus their auto destructive and decadent behaviours. Anna Calvi is a lady and she has been invited to several fashion designers showcases, Karl Lagerfeld is a fan (2) and Brian Eno became her unofficial mentor (3).

Whatever the hype, there's something going on with that very talented singer/songwriter and guitarist and it's extremely refreshing to discover a young English artist completely oblivious to whatever trends, it's a tour de force knowing she's living in such a fashion soaked cosmopolitan town as London.

Definitely a very fine debut album, for the attention to details, the wide variety and coherence of styles, the seductive and intricate melodies evoking a movie yet to be made, a dark, sad and heroic one, some gothic western, something like Jim Jarmusch' "Dead Man", the guitar, the voice, the everything.

The weakest song could be the ninth one "Morning Light", quite forgettable, but it's hugely compensated by the standout sixth (such a coincidence!) track "The Devil", a gem, a little tour-de-force with it's sparse narrative guitar and inhabitated vocals shouting the title for the length of the song. Haunting. The shadow of Jeff Buckley is hiding in the corner.

6.5 out of 10

(1) http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/jan/13/anna-calvi-classical-goth-interview
(2) http://www.styleite.com/media/karl-lagerfeld-hilary-alexander-interview/
(3) http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/soundof/2011/artists/annacalvi/?page=166

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