Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sonic Noir

After three years of work in a Fulham, London basement, Anna Calvi's eponymous debut album was released on January 17th of this year.  It is one ideally listened to alone very late at night, with earbuds in and volume high--over and over and over again, like Calvi's circular strumming.

This record is simply thrilling from start to finish.  It opens with the haunting "Rider to the Sea," an instrumental that reflects two of Calvi's stated influences--Jimi Hendrix and David Lynch.  Like Keith Richards, Calvi plays a Fender Telecaster.  She has said that she tries to make her guitar sound like "something else," an orchestra or a piano (and she also plays piano and organ).  All of the songs on the album are original, but other influences are reflected in songs Calvi's covered separately: Leonard Cohen's "Joan of Arc," Edith Piaf's "Jezebel," Elvis Presley's "Surrender."  Classical music is a strong influence--especially Ravel and Debussy.  Hers is a band of three:  Calvi, Mally Harper (vintage harmonium) and Daniel Maiden-Wood (drums).

Like Cohen, Calvi worships at the altar of desire (note that one song is titled "Suzanne and I," and another, "I'll Be Your Man"--she clearly likes to riff off of favorites, like adapting Roy Orbison's "only the lonely" phrase in "Desire").  She has said that the album's themes are "intimacy and passion," and "forces that take over you."  She embraces a Blakean vision that's both sacred and carnal ("heavenly desire")--several of her songs start as whispers, hymns that build into orchestral climaxes.  "Desire" is an anthem that evokes Patti Smith's work.  "Suzanne and I" channels Shirley Bassey on "Goldfinger";  Calvi has said in a Guardian interview that the song is "about falling asleep, meeting  someone in your dream, and never waking up.  It's about death."  Calvi has a gift for sonic architecture and dramatic structure:  "No More Words" fades with "My breath, my breath"; the single "Blackout" concludes exquisitely with the line, "Don't leave me"; "Rider" punctuates into silence with two plaintive notes.

As a child, Calvi reportedly suffered with illness and spent a lot of time in isolation, perhaps reflected in the track "Love Won't Be Leaving"--"Been in the desert so long/My desire is so strong/Sometimes I see forms coming out of the dark."   I'm reminded of Francis Coppola, bedridden with polio as a child, who began to imagine movies.  There's a cinematic and operatic quality to Calvi's work as well, which contributes to make her music so piercingly affecting.  In addition to Lynch, she's reportedly been influenced by the films of Gus Van Sant and Wong Kar-Wai.  

In a recent piece in Interview magazine, Calvi told John Norris that she started singing only five years ago, in part because of extreme shyness that she forced herself to conquer.  She listened to Maria Callas and Nina Simone and practiced for six hours a day.  That, and Calvi's three years underground, so to speak, have thankfully brought the devil in her out into the light.  Domino records released the first album, and Calvi has gotten strong endorsements from Brian Eno (who referred to her as "the biggest thing since Patti Smith") and Nick Cave (who had her open for his Grinderman tour).  

Calvi said in one interview, "I've got an old fashioned idea of an album being a whole piece of work."  And what a stunningly cohesive whole she has produced (co-producer is Rob Ellis, a drummer known for his work with PJ Harvey and Marianne Faithfull, among others).  This album hits you at your core. Calvi is currently touring Europe and on her way to the U.S.  Luckily for us Angelenos, she will playing the Troubadour on June 7 (tickets available through her Facebook page).  I predict that it will hard to find her in such an intimate venue again.  For she is the most exciting new recording artist of the year.

P. S.  Follow this link for a video stream of Calvi performing most of her album in the studio of KCRW on Jason Bentley's show Morning Becomes Eclectic, June 8, 2011:

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