Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Anna Calvi: Artist and album review

 Water Rats, London - July 2009

I first saw Anna Calvi supporting Carina Round (whom I also first experienced as a support act, opening for Gutter Twins) in July 2009 at the Water Rats. She was jaw-droppingly good, cue close to two years waiting impatiently for her self-titled debut album to be released on Domino Records...

The record remains one of, if not the strongest release of 2011 and has what seems a rare sense of identity and confidence seldom seen from a debut these days. It's been described as a dark record and while one could easily nod in agreement to that statement, it perhaps conjures the wrong impression, yes it's dark on occasion but I find it a beautiful and uplifting effort. Anna knows when to leave space for the songs to breathe and other moments to let the music soar to a natural crescendo. It's the ease with which Anna is comfortable in such a wide dynamic range and volume that demands attention from the listener, and it's certainly an album that rewards any attention you can afford. When it's all too easy for music to become a bit more disposable in this digital age, it's seemingly hard to make time to just sit down and listen to something, but I assure you, dear readers, this deserves your time.

Having first experienced Anna in a live setting, you can't help but be struck at how incredible her guitar playing skills are, this virtuousity appears in a more subtle form on the record overall, so I would certainly urge you to catch her live if at all possible. Though this is not to say these studio versions are in any way watered down, there's just something about the intensity and passion with which she performs live and her range of skills from classical to flamenco, rock and blues become overtly evident.

Oxford - May 2011 

Anna is complimented by drummer/backing vocalist Daniel Maiden-Wood, who dominates his modest setup and knows just the right moments to add a bit of flare or drive a song forward. Mally Harpaz completes the lineup, mostly playing the harmonium (that's an instrument you don't see all that often) but also contributes with other instruments and additional percussion.

Calvi's vocals are reminiscent of some of my favourite singers such Jeff Buckley and PJ Harvey (unfortunately it seems to be quite hard to be a good female singer without being compared to the great Polly Jean at some point...) among others.

The album kicks off with a low-key guitar instrumental, Rider to the Sea, which hints towards an Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western standoff. Desire is the second single release from the record, Calvi uses phrases like "the devil" as personal metaphors and this song features Brian Eno, who is a huge fan. Desire has a real drive to it while it's also hard not to be entranced with the perfect production on the record, you get some sense of euphoria as she belts out the chorus while the song builds to a triumphant finale.

My personal favourite song on the album is Suzanne And I, I love the pounding drums and the perfect guitar sound, it's a real victory and as you hear the album unfold you feel as though the band have really agonised over every single second of every song, they must all take their art very seriously but do so in a way that doesn't come across as pretentious. Listening to interviews where Anna is so mild and softly-spoken you wonder how she must flip some kind of mental switch to project such a powerful and commanding vocal when singing.

Oxford - May 2011  

The Devil certainly evokes the Jeff Buckley reference I made earlier and it's these quiet, reflective songs that really draw you in, immersed in the space between each note, aching for the next snare hit like listening to the best slowcore can offer. The mood perks up again with the album's debut single, Blackout, which features some rare bass guitar but at this point that only emphasises how little the presence of a bottom-end has been missed (and this coming from someone who plays bass).

I think this performance of Love Won't Be Leaving (from the TV show Live From Abbey Road, the song starts at 1:21) showcases Anna's all-round qualities, the dynamic range I spoke of, great voice and the blistering guitar solo is something to behold. Please give it your time, I do wish the extended mid-section was on the record. The only word I can use is blistering!

I wanted to get this blog piece done in time to predict that Anna would get nominated for the 2011 Mercury Prize - I couldn't really care less about it, but people do usually get some extra exposure from it, which will hopefully be the case here. There's something old and new that Anna is doing and I imagine I will continue to be entranced by her and hope she has a long career, let's hope she isn't put under too much pressure and allowed to flourish on her own terms.

Oxford - May 2011  

All photos taken by me apart from the album cover.


  1. Couldn't agree more Chris, my favourite new artist of the year... (well the album came out this year!). Thanks for the recommendation earlier this year, this CD gets regular outings. One thing though, does she change that red shirt at all? :D

  2. It's certainly getting a lot of wear, she probably has a wardrobe full of them! She was wearing something a bit more floral (but still red...) when I saw her in 2009, maybe she wore it out :)