Wooden flooring. Giant, pink globes of light. Hip twentysomethings lounging around on the floor in languid poses. Not exactly the kind of scene one might anticipate at a rock show. In fact, the sparse crowd and sparser threads of conversation that anticipated Calla’s arrival onstage were more befitting a late night coffee house than a music venue. But as the band wordlessly took the stage, the audience rose to its feet, swelling in number and energy and the first otherworldly notes floated out to greet them.
Founded in Texas but relocated to Brooklyn, Calla (kal-uh, not kai-yah) has a sound that defies regionalism, or even earthly comparison. Waves of atmospheric guitar lilt and rise before collapsing into harsh, staccato breaks, creating a tension between the beautiful and the gritty throughout their songs. Far above this swirling drum and guitar play is the breathy voice of Aurelio Valle, a distant yet insistent whisper that adds still another layer to the rich mixture of sound.
29 May 2003: The Mercury Austin, Texas
Valle teams with drummer Wayne Magruder and bassist Sean Donovan to craft songs with an astonishing degree of texture for a three piece. To more faithfully capture the fullness of their sound—most recently available on their third album, Televise (Arena Rock)—the band picked up a fourth member, guitarist Peter Gannon, for the tour. The result is a nearly flawless fidelity to their recordings, which (in this day of overproduction) is a rare and happy occurrence. Many a music fan knows the disappointment of paying good money to see a live act only to realize that it’s the producer, not the talent onstage, responsible for their sound.
Calla, however, was no disappointment. If anything, they surprised with the stirring renditions of their “ambient” material. Most critics use the term as a synonym for lackadaisical or sleepy tempos that care more about melody than rhythm. With chunky, metallic digressions, though, Calla were able to infuse their amorphous soundscapes with a quiet tension that lent urgency to these less structured abstractions. The song “Strangler”, for example, was introduced with three successive, jarring collisions to Valle’s guitar while Gannon picked out a higher, but equally ominous melody. Magruder and Donovan joined in (Magruder using, as he often did, one drumstick and one maraca to mark time) with a dark, jerky rhythm. Eventually, however, the song soared into an ethereal melody, a bright, slow glowing emerging from the initial promise of darkness.
This juxtaposition, typical of Calla’s sound, is both unique and effective. The band alternately lulls its audience with a shimmering flood of melodic feedback and jerks it back to attention with crunchy jerks and syncopated spasms—or vice versa. Imagine tracing the unfolding path of a gently curving line, only to have it sporadically snap into hard, jagged angles.
But all of this might make Calla’s sound seem more calculated and detached than it really is. Hiding beneath the varied layers of sound is the faint and elusive idea of pop song. The band may not have people tapping their toes or striking a pose on the dance floor, but neither do they turn their backs on hooks and melodies. Rather, the melodic threads of Calla’s work are stretched and refigured, warped into new forms that are at times expansive and, at others, compact. Rarely, however, are they in the recognizable form so favored by the three-minute ditties that populate mainstream radio waves.
In short, Calla push further, as they did this night. With disjointed dissonance in one hand and ambient melodies in the other, Calla’s live sound drew from both but was beholden to neither. The show, then, was part rock ‘n’ roll, part seance, in which ghosts were coaxed from amplifiers and dark voices were brought to light.