Following a major critical and cult success sucks doesn’t it? If you try and change the winning formula too much your fans hate it (think post-Screamadelica era Primal Scream) or, if you keep a similar sound, the press yawn and move on, their need for incessant novelty unsatiated. Worse still you end up trying to second guess what your audience want, based on the extensive touring that has been your only contact with the real world since your debut. This can mean turning everything up to eleven (Stone Roses ‘Second Coming’), just not fully developing the ideas for the songs (‘Rope’ era Clash) or simplifying your music to get it on the radio losing any subtlety or rough edges (House of Love). Yet every now and again an artist manages to evolve the sound of a successful debut and walk that tightrope between evolution and quality control – Anna Calvi step forward.
Calvi’s 2011 Mercury nominated debut was a rare beast indeed – a masterclass in how to build and release tension over 40 lurid minutes of raw, operatic, vocals and remarkable guitar. It had an unusual combination of darkness and acoustic space that has sadly slipped from popular culture in this age of auto tune and light entertainment karaoke covers. Think of the darkness that enveloped some of those old Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash or Elvis records and try to think of anyone now who could pull that off convincingly in these Seroxat, Cipramil and stage school times. Trust me it’s a short list: Nick Cave, PJ Harvey for sure, Marc Almond, Lisa Gerrard and Siouxsie at their peak, and maybe even Karin Dreijer Andersson of the Knife and Fever Ray – but far too few to offset the talent show automatons who dominate our airwaves. That Calvi managed it on a debut album was nothing short of extraordinary – try this video of ‘Blackout’, it’s best known track, if you need a reminder: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0U6b_xlJ2w
Which brings us to the new collection ‘One Breath’, apparently informed Calvi has said by the loss of a family member during the intervening period. So its fair to say that the debut’s darkness is still there – but often with a sense of transition such as opener ‘Suddenly’’s “We stand on the edge, it tastes like I’m leaving…”. The sound palette has changed however – this time around it is more modern, more compressed, even where the material is not a million miles from the debut as on lead single ‘Eliza’. Much more interesting are the little touches like the way Calvi uses controlled, distorted bass notes to disrupt ‘Piece by Piece’s mantra-like calm or the way that ‘Cry’ sounds like passing rapidly by a room where Adrian Belew is playing the solo from Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ very loud… The use of orchestration over ‘Carry Me Over’’s filmic instrumental section is also extremely effective, paving the way for the emotional release of Calvi’s closing wordless vocal intervention.
Vocally Ms Calvi has broadened her range of styles too – from the close mic-ed breathy Ingrid Chavez vocal style used on the title track and ‘Piece by Piece’ to the genuine beauty of the choral section on closer ‘The Bridge’. Even where the material is more of a straightforward (alt)rocker like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs meets PJ Harvey of ‘Love of My Life’, the talent for the unexpected comes through again in the softened middle eight. The wonderful orchestral section in the latter part of the title track works in a similar way – acting as a reminder of the debut’s striking grasp of modern classical dynamics emphasised by that ‘classical mixtape’ that she selected for the early Rough Trade copies.
The biggest difference between ‘One Breath’ and the debut though is probably that this time around the build and release of tension happens quicker, often within the same track rather than accruing over the course of several songs as before. It still works beautifully, of course, and having cleared the ‘difficult follow up album’ hurdle so comprehensively serves notice of a substantial talent, potentially a major artist, who looks like she will be with us for the long haul.
Watch the video for lead single ‘Eliza’ here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cO6e4oAfXC0&feature=c4-overview-vl&list=PLE_QPNuG35Go_xhXPWanG0vaTZjMOd_2u