Calla: Strength in Numbers

Dan Raper

Strength in Numbers shows us a band who've grown exceedingly comfortable in their own style.


Strength in Numbers

Label: Begggars Banquet
US Release Date: 2007-02-20
UK Release Date: Available as import

For a reviewer, Calla almost -- but never quite -- makes a pigeon-hole a natural thing. Now on their fifth album, the Brooklyn band has perfected a swirling, complex desperation couched in conventional angst-rock. For a few albums now, in the studio Calla has come across as all coiled power, remarkably well contained. And Strength in Numbers is nothing different --for someone new to the band, a perfect entry point; for a seasoned Calla fan, a welcome expansion.

Here, as throughout the band's catalogue, Calla establishes early that they know how to use noise, but not to rely on it. This is a great thing, because too often it's the noise-as-emotional-punch thing makes mainstream rock so predictable. At this point it's possible to outline a prototypical Calla song: unexpected hush over ominous percussion, effects pedal working overtime, and Aurelio Valle's strained voice. A more conventional band would follow these acoustic introductions with exploded distortion, but Calla works in the opposite direction, building up atmosphere to breaking point. It's become quite characteristic, and certainly effective.

Still, the ghosts of many other bands inform Calla's guitar-based sound and Valle's angsty vocals. First and foremost, this music couldn't have been possible without The Bends, and in its more histrionic moments the band also reminds of Muse, though the singer continually resists the temptation to go theatrical, thankfully. "Simone", one of the more upbeat songs that have been floating around the blogs for a few months, is most derivative of Radiohead, "Sanctify"'s darkly romantic groove is in the style of a band like Tool, and "Bronson", a Cold War Kids-esque rocker, churns ahead with a familiar, but still enjoyable stomp.

It's useful to think of Calla's music in terms of an American idea of rock. There seems to be a spirit of the American West flowing through Calla's music, which is only to say that, as on "Stand Paralyzed", the band has nailed a sort of breezy complexity, all open depression, which is both overt and intriguing. Part of it is atmospheric, but there's also a profoundly scary element to this music. The echoing space-instrumental "Malo" is genuinely creepy, like the opening sequence to one of those horror movies set in a quiet New England town.

This total American-ness could be an easy angle for backlash, but let's not get too caught up. Pop-rock may sound so much sexier with a Swedish accent, but the quality of this more modest, home-grown fare shouldn't have to justify itself. "Sleep in Splendour" is a good example -- low-pitched and slightly slower in tempo than you might think, its complex tapping guitar becomes, after a few listens, entirely appropriate for the song.

Calla may not be the special talk of SXSW, or the latest band to sweep through New York on a wave of hype, but Strength in Numbers shows us a band who've grown exceedingly comfortable in their own style. It's true that the band doesn't always get it right, especially when veering closer to the conventional song structures with verses and choruses (that's when the band most resembles the bands previously noted). But for the most part, Calla has become an uncompromising version of themselves: melancholy, desperate, but above all, unable to break free.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.