Calla | Scavengers | ReviewPITCHFORK REVIEW: Calla, Scavengers; Rating: 8.3 PITCHFORK REVIEW
Calla's 1999 self-titled debut was the type of record that's typically filed under "avant" in loftier music stores. Not quite rock, not quite post-rock, it was a fuzz-caked affair described by luminaries like Alternative Press as, "Quiet tension without release and music without boundaries." Truth be told, with its vocals mixed super-low, screeching guitars, and nearly formless songwriting, Calla was inaccessible and came off as almost absurdly pretentious.
The group's second LP, then, is a sweetly stinging smack in the face. From the start, with the stellar "Fear of Fireflies," it's clear that the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Texas trio is shedding more skin than the snakes they grew up around. With tinny percussion, folky acoustic strumming, melodic basslines, and vocals way up front, it seems that singer/guitarist Aurelio Valle, occasional Bowery Electric cohort drummer Wayne B. Magruder, and bassist/keyboardist Sean Donovan have ditched the obtuse atmospheric electronics that made their debut so impenetrable. The biggest shock, though, comes not from more straight-ahead instrumentation, but from the quality of songwriting. The opener slinks along a brooding line during the verses, until an undeniably infectious, image-laden chorus, in which Valle sings, "See your fireflies hover at the dark/ Following tracers scattered in the park/ Following me."
And much of Scavengers finds Calla on similarly melodic and gorgeous ground. The album's greatest strength is its consistent moodiness—the brooding air of desperation and paranoia that looms but never wallows in self-importance. It's evident in the twangy "Hover over Nowhere," which is framed by sluggish slow-core drums washed away by a (slightly) brighter chorus with a lamenting guitar packed with reverb. The claustrophobic "Traffic Sound" sports a low-end pulse and ominous guitar riff similar to the one in Portishead's "Sour Times." "Love of Ivah" is a sparse guitar and bass ballad in which Valle remarks, "I hope I never see you in another life/ I just might try seeking shelter underneath my skin."
If the music and lyrics create the mood of Scavengers, Valle's vocals realize and perfect it. His breathy, sometimes whispered delivery sounds alternately affected and apathetic, as though he's fatally wounded and using his waning strength to attempt to shrug it off. Though his approach is potentially disastrous, he sounds utterly genuine, like when he sings, "Sorry for the inconvenience/ It's only 'cause I'm losing patience," after the song has just rapidly built up to dynamic cacophony.
Calla temporarily revert back to the ways of their debut on two Scavengers tracks, "Mayzelle" and "A Fondness for Crawling." While neither song seems out of place, both serve as the record's low points. When a band is as adroit as Calla at more or less "conventional" songwriting, atmospheric compositions consisting of polyrhythmic tablas, atonal hums, and harsh scraping sounds simply feel like unnecessary experiments.
But for the most part, Calla bypass revisiting their difficult debut and instead reinvent themselves as a brooding, masterfully melodic pack. And Scavengers is testament to the success that comes when a band turns its back on self-written exposition, and expertly comes out of its shell.