Anni Rossi, a young, classically trained violist and singer, has a small but loyal fanbase and a 4AD record deal. So we should probably be paying more attention to her.
She makes it as easy as she can on her debut full-length. See, Rockwell is a recapitulation of sorts. Mostly made up of re-recordings of songs familiar from her previous EPs, the album was recorded in one day with Steve Albini. These new incarnations, much more smoothly produced, contribute an atmosphere of pure pop luxury: warm, bass-boosted viola and voice captured on expensive microphones in a warm, insulated room. Together, from the quirky classical music-crossover of her early work, Rockwell swerves sharply towards late-period Regina Spektor. Substitute viola for Spektor’s piano and the artists have a remarkable similarity. But where Spektor’s songs are intensely personal, generating resonance out of personal tragedy and occasional abandon, Rossi is much more oblique and objective.
Rossi sings about “freezer boxes”; about Venice inundated by a flood; about driving to the West Coast. The unpacking of these odd images is left to the listener, making Rossi’s songs both more difficult and, occasionally, extremely rewarding. These may be isolated episodes from Rossi’s life, but as presented they become strange, almost allegorical episodes. Her gift for vivid imagery is a large part of Rockwell’s success; imagine, for a moment, a beehive in the Himalayas, bright yellow against white mountaintops. But it’s the figure at the song’s centre, a beekeeper “standing in pain” after being stung on the fingers, which the song ultimately comes home to: honourable and apart, this enigmatic figure is a potent fiction, some amalgamation of father figure and frontiersman.
That’s not to say Rockwell’s all obscure metaphor and plaintive environmental lament. On “Las Vegas”, Rossi takes on the character of a boxer, but she might as well be singing about herself. When she says, “I might still make it as / The champion”, she momentarily recalls Cat Power. Both this and “The Greatest” share that defeated grace, each struggle slightly less. It’s a powerful idea, mined again in Mickey Rourke’s wrestler, and again, here, in an absolutely gorgeous song.
Despite the sparse instrumentation (most of the time just voice plus viola, occasional cello, and percussion), Rossi’s songs are structurally complex and demonstrate a varied timbre and affect. “Wheelpusher”, a characteristic Rossi construction, moves from simple pizzicato chords to pulsing syncopated string saws, to a wilder, broken arpeggio in the climax. Underneath these sophisticated classical techniques, though, Rossi clearly also loves pop. She covers, unexpectedly, Ace of Base (it comes out sounding something closer to Ben Folds). She breathes the thrown-off major seventh leaps of “Machine” with a relish-in-spotlight attitude, eager to show off the bright melody despite its tricky melody. And on “The West Coast”, buoyed by an only occasionally wonky pizzicato arpeggio, she takes a simple major third and gradually builds it up to a tremolo-fueled celebration.
Throughout Rockwell, the sense of this complex individual, Anni Rossi, gradually coalesces. Her songs together paint a picture of a forthright, plangent character who, like Frida Hyvonen, mines experience for universe-level significance. And unlike many other singer-songwriters, her virtuosic, unorthodox viola technique provides a unique backdrop to these stories.