Making good on the promise of Calla’s self-titled 1999 debut, Scavengers is the first release by the Brooklyn-based Texans on Michael Gira’s Young God label.
There’s something wonderfully cinematic about Scavengers. It conjures up images of a heavily smoky, barely lit bar in the lost reaches of some Southwestern desert. You’re slumped in a corner booth hopelessly doped, your senses swimming in an atmosphere that has the consistency of treacle. It’s almost impossible to discern shapes, but if you squint, you can focus for long enough to make out the shadowy figures of the house-band, Calla, who are filling the room with subtly metamorphosing layers of hypnotic ambience that hang in the air.
Calla performs the near impossible insofar as Scavengers acquires a lush density and spaciousness that belie the seemingly minimal instrumentation of Aurelio Valle (guitar), Wayne B. Magruder (drums) and Sean Donovan (bass/keyboards). The basic components of Calla’s music are ocean-trawling bass, under-articulated vocals, pared-down blues-rock rhythms and weaving, Ennio Morricone-styled guitar melodies. Nevertheless, the arrangements of those elements are constantly reconfigured throughout Scavengers in such a way as to produce myriad, shifting sonic textures and shapes.
Lurking beneath the meandering surface of many of the tracks, there’s often a vaguely foreboding undertow that derives from the combination of the deep-rooted bass with Valle’s voice. Much like Tricky, Valle employs a hushed, constrained vocal range that injects the songs with a disquieting, claustrophobic feel. On tracks like the (early) Pink Floydian “Traffic Sound”, however, that confined space is opened out somewhat as the ponderous bass and whispered vocals yield to piercing, spacey guitar atmospherics.
Valle’s throaty delivery might bear little resemblance to the vocal style of Low’s Alan Sparhawk, but Calla’s overall approach has much in common with that of Low, in terms of its sparseness, its unhurried pacing, its exploration of varying intensities within songs and its integration of quiet spaces. Certain of those similarities are discernible on numbers like “Hover Over Nowhere” and “Tijerina”. Building on a simple beat, the epic “Hover” starts like a drugged waltz—a wobbly relative of Nick Cave’s “Weeping Annaleah”—incrementally picking up pace as it shifts toward a guitar-driven conclusion. The more sparse “Tijerina” hinges on an ebb and flow of intensity enhanced by subtle pauses and a slightly out-of-whack, marginally off-key guitar.
But while much of Scavengers unfolds in slow motion and at low volume, Calla does rock in its own understated way. On “The Swarm”, for instance, the group kicks into a rockabilly gait with a stripped-down and distorted psychedelic riff.
Too often, bands working at the more experimental end of the alt.rock spectrum err on the side of pretension as their songs fail to coalesce and ultimately collapse under the weight of their own idiosyncrasy. Calla avoids such pitfalls, even at its least accessible on tracks like “Slum Creeper”. Moreover, although on “Slum Creeper” in particular the combination of an off-kilter, queasy fairground sound and Valle’s vocals puts the listener in mind of Tom Waits, the song is far from derivative.
The finest moment on the album comes on the last track in the form of an unlikely cover version, “Promenade” by U2 . Leaving the structure of the original intact, Calla makes the song its own. The result neatly sums up the band’s principal strengths on Scavengers: namely, an ability to make haunting and affecting music within achingly slow, measured and minimal arrangements.