[8 February 2011]
“Chanteuse”. There y’go. For those too cool, too fast, to read a full review, there’s your one word water cooler response. “Chanteuse”. Eternally glamorous, but perennially doomed nightclub torch-song singer with a skeleton army in their closet. A dark heart, fawned over, but always beyond reach. Piaf. Callas. Buckley. But for those who dare look closer, come on in. Anna Calvi deserves closer inspection. It deserves not only your attention but, yikes, much of the considerable hype surrounding it. Yes, I just can’t imagine this Anna Calvi ever working down the local butcher, flogging black pudding and pork scratchings anytime soon. She’s a natural “dark star”. A bona fide Chanteuse.
Calvi’s history is fittingly elaborate. Apparently, she was found abandoned in a Moses’ basket, outside the celestial palace of a Wizard who lived high up in the mountains far, far away from civilisation. His name was…Eno! ‘Brian’ Eno. He raised the infant Calvi as his own, training her in the arts of sonic space rock alchemy. His Midas touch echoes within this record I hold today. Soon, though, Calvi had surpassed even Eno’s vision, and the pupil invariably became the master. Eno had no choice but to call for back-up in the shape up of Rob Ellis, a man wise in the ways of nurturing feral witchcraft, or as you say, “producing PJ Harvey and Marianne Faithfull”. Together, somehow, someway, Anna Calvi was born. OK, I admit this is slight embellishment on my part, but the music compelled me do it. You see, it’s got dark magic. I tell thee, it’ll make you…do…stuff.
Yes, from the deliriously OTT instrumental “Rider to the Sea” onward, we are beckoned into the dimly lit, fantasy netherworld of Anna Calvi. A cavernous glory resplendent with sparkles of Ennio Morricone cinematics, Buckley’s mojo pin dropping before a breathless Sin-é, a deep lungful of Frank Booth dread, a gasp of Ophelia yearning that elusive flower, and a defiant shrug of Edith Piaf leaving a trail of smokin’ carnage behind her. In other words, well worth a visit.
DRINK ME! Yes like Alice’s potion, Anna Calvi, is best swallowed whole. Songs swim through each other and, across 40 minutes, a very intricate web is woven. It’s a very distinct sound. Take “The Devil”. Calvi The Voice. A-hollerin’ like The Pope dragging Satan out of her sickly soul, and frankly, he don’t wanna come out. “OH! OH! OH! OHHHH! The Devil! Wooo-ooh-oooh!” Burn, baby, burn. Then there’s Calvi The Musician. Damn, po’ gal can play. She can make a guitar, well, gently weep, squeeze your soul, and then, suddenly, scratch your eyes out just for fun. These songs slither, weave, and strike like operatic vipers. Ten sunset spaghetti westerns with flamenco, Señoritas, empty graves, showdowns, gunslingers, sirens, burning bushes, vultures, fire ‘n’ brimstone, and, yes, sightings of Beelzebub.
But despite weeping ‘CULT’ from its very marrow, this is a record with cunning potential for mass hypnotism. “Desire” is Arcade Fire with Springsteen still in their Bibles, an exorcism of pop melody rolling like swollen waves crashing against the rocks. “It’s the Devil in me!”, wails and contorts Calvi. A million bottles washed upon the shore all screaming, “You don’t have to be lost”. Basically, a radio revolution for a more imaginative age. “Blackout” meanwhile is a freewheelin’, motorcyclin’ Roy Orbison with Morrissey in the sidecar. All flailing arms, chicken runs, and switchblades that turn out to be combs for sculpting immaculate quiffs. “In the dark I could be anyone!” A chequered flag falls, and every loser wins. Elsewhere, the hip-snakin’ blues of “I’ll Be Your Man” will have Tarantino and Lynch trading knuckle sandwiches in the car park over who gets her first. There’s danger a-sleepin’ in that there darkness, y’all. “I’LL! BE! Youuuurrr maayaaan” Calvi threatens as you hand her your wallet and keys apologetically.
There are still knockout highlights, though. “First We Kiss” is stunning. Imagine Richard Hawley penning the classiest, most elegant Bond theme since “You Only Live Twice”. Haunting, romantic, timeless. “I feel it come from nowhere / Taking over me”. It’s also got a wildcat bonkers bridge just so we don’t get too cosy. Amongst the tension, the softer, atmospheric “Morning Light” also stands Olympian—Jeff Buckley swaying in a harmonium hammock. It purrs and prowls like one of Val Lewton’s Cat People. Pretty. Deadly. A black panther stretched out in the grass. Its lyrics a lighthouse arm sweeping the horizon’s edge for lost souls, “But you never belong”.
Flaws are personal and picky. The slight “Suzanne & I” skips like a dwarf through the land of the giants. An understudy caught napping. The grande finale “Love Won’t Be Leaving” meanwhile isn’t ‘grande’ enough. “I hope this letter finds you well / I draw your name in the sand in the hope it will find you” pines Calvi. But despite sharing the gonzo madness of Love’s “Alone Again Or” and a cameo from what may be Calvi chasing Ellis with a toy chainsaw, it just doesn’t get there. The lights come on too early, and before you know it, we’re in the cab home, still itchy for more devilry. Also, where for art thou “Moulinette”? Early birds too may’ve expected more of the stripped, haunted ‘56 Calvi that fired those jaw-droppingly cryptic early appearances. Next time maybe.
Anna Calvi’s debut isn’t afraid to be fantastical, striking, to be “The Big Music”. As an opening hand, it’s a winner. It’s defiantly mysterious, moonlit, and belongs on the periphery of pop, beckoning us mischievously to leave the mundane behind. Like the best pop, it’s rich and strange. It is reality re-imagined, elegantly repainted, and glamorised. A blood red sky soaked with menace, drawl and smouldering desire. Its “Let’s go down together” romanticism is wonderfully beguiling, and I’m happy to fall in. PJ Harvey disciples may cry “Heretic!” and “Burn the witch!”, but the rest of us should probably form a sensible, single-file, human chain around its freaky wonder-walls. Keep pop enigmatic, sultry, and unhinged! Or as they say in the Mecca of the Chanteuse, “Vive la différence!”