Calla: Scavengers

Wilson Neate

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.



US Release Date: 2001-01-23

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.