soundstreamsunday #95: “Jezebel” by Anna Calvi

calviYou could do worse than follow the 1951 Wayne Shanklin song “Jezebel” as a guiding aesthetic for launching a recording career.  A hit for Frankie Laine (1951), Edith Piaf (1951), and, remarkably, Herman’s Hermits (1966),  “Jezebel” is built around a flamenco figure that adapts itself well to pop drama and, as Anna Calvi demonstrated on her first single, shows a sympathy to the reverb-y guitar dynamics and thundering tom-driven drumming favored by surf guitarists and Italian directors of Spanish-set westerns.

Taking rough cues from Piaf’s French version of the song, Calvi here adds a visually arresting, emotional core lacking in many of “Jezebel’s” versions, setting the table for the feast of her self-titled debut (2011), a record ripe with passion and shadow, with unified sonic and narrative themes that you might call cafe goth.  Siouxsie and the Banshees comparisons certainly apply, but there’s an Americana bent to it, too, inhabiting the same territory Chris Isaak mines to such great effect, or even the darker work of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood in the 1960s.

The video for “Jezebel” is a live performance by Calvi and her band, Daniel Maielen-Wood and Mally Harpez.  It is a power trio upended, confounded, confirmed by Harpez’s harmonium, transporting the song to the bars of Sevilla, approaching midnight, as the walls jump to the shadows of a guitarist and her dancers….

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

The stunning molten lava from Anna Calvi’s mouth

After reading my e-mails this morning, I was left with some burning questions: How did I miss that Anna Calvi had a new album out? When would I get to hear it? Should I write about it?

Answers: I have no idea. Today. Yes.

If you’ve not heard of Calvi (website), here’s my short description: she is like the mysterious, nearly other-worldly, torch-singer-rocker-love child of Jeff Buckley and Kate Bush, or Freddie Mercury and Édith Piaf, with enough mystery, angst, and yearning for an entire band, which may explain why she usually performs as a spare trio (with a drummer and keyboardist/percussionist). A recent review in The Guardian of a live show captures it quite well, at least as well as can be managed with words:

Anna Calvi is a creature of contrasts. She says almost nothing between songs, breathing her thanks in a shy murmur – but when she sings, it’s as if molten lava were pouring from her mouth, a torrent of red-hot emotion. The sounds she conjures up from her guitar are crisp and precise – yet she plays with fluid motions, fingers rippling across frets, hand moving in circles across the strings. She is a vision of decorum, elegantly prim in tailored trousers and a long-sleeved blouse – but her songs drip with lust, voicing the cries of a body rejected, consumed, gripped by obsession.

Or, in other “words”, this (if you’re pressed for time, start watching at about 3:30):

Now, that is a lady with something going on deep, deep, deep inside! The Guardian reviewer further states, “It’s ridiculous that, after 60 years of rock’n’roll, a well-dressed woman wielding a guitar should still be such a rare sight as to be exciting in a primal, nerve-tingling way, but it is. She’s all the more commanding because her playing is so controlled…” Much of the uniqueness of Calvi is that the sum is far more than the parts, as good and unusual as many of the parts are. She is, in my estimation, one of those performers who completely transforms on the stage; in interviews she seems truly shy and almost apologetic (in this, she reminds of that Prince fellow). She has a voice that alternates between husky beckoning, whispered perplexity, and wailing anguish; when she fully unleashes a note, it’s a force of nature. Her guitar playing is both precise and wild, or perhaps it is precise but rendered with wild (but perfectly rehearsed) flourishes. Her appearance is somewhat androgynous and yet, ultimately, deeply feminine, as if she wishes to hide in dress what she prefers to reveal in song. Perhaps she is confused; perhaps she wishes to confuse (again, Prince comes to mind).

Regardless, the music ranges from very good to great, and her second album, “One Breath,” builds impressively on her eponymous debut. The music is again quite atmospheric, lush, and yet focused; the arrangements are intelligent and often complex, but they are accessible and attractive, even when discord and chaos are occasionally introduced. Calvi makes great use of silence; she is one of the few artists I know who will let silence be an obvious part of a song (in a way, this reminds me of jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal and his great admirer, a trumpet player named Miles Davis). Certain songs immediately stand out (“Suddenly,” “Eliza,” and “Tristan”) but this album is best heard as an operatic-like whole. The twist, if that’s the right word, is that Calvi bares her soul with unblinking ferocity and yet makes it warm and attractive and even magical, much like Kate Bush has done on some of her best albums (“The Hounds of Love” and “The Sensual World”). David Von Bader puts it well in his Consequence of Sound review:

The thing that sets Calvi apart from most virtuosic musicians is an ability to spin art out of technique without alienating the listener. Whether it be the percussive hammering of her guitar strings on “Tristan”, the emotional immediacy of her athletic vocals throughout the album, or the lush and occasionally noisy atmospheres, the album offers heaps of aural fiber without pretense or unnecessary complexity. One Breath is a dynamic statement from a young woman who could very well be the next David Bowie or Nick Cave. Much like the gilded aforementioned names, Calvi is an accomplished musician and composer, possesses an exceedingly well-developed artistic vision, and rounds the package out with a striking aesthetic. All that sets her in a class of her own as a young, exciting artist who should have strong material for years to come.

Agreed! As a bonus, here is Calvi performing Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” live, with just an acoustic guitar to accompany: