Before even releasing her debut album, Anna Calvi has been lauded by Brian Eno, included in the BBC’s influential Sound of 2011 list and toured with Interpol and Nick Cave’s Grinderman. Dizzy heights indeed for a young woman with just one single to her name, but a string of intense, captivating live shows over the past year have generated a buzz of excitement about this London-based, half-Italian singer-songwriter.
The first thing that strikes you about her eponymous album is what an immensely confident record it is. Its creator has apparently spent the past three years perfecting its songs, and the end result is a fully formed, multi-faceted sound that engages the listener’s attention from the very first note.
Opener Rider to the Sea begins with a series of stark, elegantly atmospheric guitar chords reminiscent of Mogwai, instantly showcasing Calvi’s virtuoso musical abilities. Two minutes in, her haunting, cacophonous voice is heard tantalisingly in the background for the first time before retreating back into the ether.
This juxtaposition of guitar and voice is central to proceedings, although there are also strong contributions from a tight backing band. Eno compared Calvi to Patti Smith, and while she doesn’t possess the legendary punk-poetess’ lyrical brilliance, the almost shamanic intensity of her performances certainly suggests a kindred spirit. PJ Harvey is another obvious reference point, especially as the two women share a producer, Rob Ellis.
The album’s at its best when Calvi’s songs abandon conventional structures and concentrate on delivering raw, primeval emotion. Nowhere is this better exemplified than on The Devil, which strips back the layers to leave just Anna and her guitar. Elements of classical, flamenco and rock merge seamlessly together beneath an impassioned vocal that shifts from whisper to holler and back, chanting wordless sounds before proclaiming "the devil will come" amid wails of feedback.
In a world overflowing with female singer-songwriters, Anna Calvi’s exceptional guitar playing and raw, elemental style certainly mark her out as different from the herd. Whether the mass market has the stomach for her challenging, often freeform compositions remains to be seen, but you’re likely to hear a lot more of Ms Calvi in 2011 and beyond.
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