Calla at the Empty Bottle
Chicago, October 30, 2005
I’m offering this simple question to indie kids from ages one to twenty-two: How are you not losing your collective shit over the new Calla album, Collisions? I mean, sure, Calla isn’t hewing to current trends like “freak-folk” or “being Canadian,” instead throwing in their lot with musical trends already being eulogized on VH-1. But you guys love anti-heroes! Sure, there’s a couple tracks that scream to the heavens, “Track Forward! Track Forward!” But when did that stop you from anointing a new darling?
The answers have less to do with the music Calla makes and more to do with the path they’ve taken to get there. Calla likes to do things backwards. They messed around in the studio, then became a live band; they started out with experimental leanings, then went rock. And they’ve been around since at least ’97, somehow making sad, dense music before Livejournal even existed. And here they were, playing a bar show on the Sunday night before Halloween.
Calla brought their own lights, three dim ones pointing straight up, and wore all black. Frontman Aurelio Valle’s guitar has always sounded like it’s echoing across some desolate patch of the American Southwest on the blackest night of the year, and the darkened stage only added to this effect. If Collisions has an Achilles’ heel, it’s the way Valle’s too-easy whispergrowl sometimes takes center stage over those badass guitar melodies. Live, you can’t tell if it’s Valle’s voice or a trick of the wind, which is helpful on several levels, since lyrics like “That’s not how it’s s’posed to be / It’s the last time I’ll be on my knees” can be a touch melodramatic if belted-out with full fury. But since rock and roll is inherently an exercise in melodrama to begin with, and because I happily see as much Corgan-flavored, ’90s radio alt-rock in Calla’s music as other reviewers see Slint-flavored post-rock, Calla should get a pass lyrically.
It only helps Calla’s cause that Valle holds his guitar over his hip, playing it like he’s a gunslinger or something. He doesn’t yelp or jump, but he looks cooler just strumming his guitar than any frontman I’ve seen in a while. The blackened stage, the minimalist rock-star moves, the Sunday-vibe, the uncomfortable lack of stage banter. For a band with music as heart-on-sleeve as Calla, it was all decidedly low-key. I can’t decide if the intended effect of stripping away rock-show trappings is to overemphasize the music itself, or to just make the music seem that more unearthly and desolate. Or maybe the two are the same thing. The only thing I was sure of by the end of the show is that, somehow, Calla manages to be genuinely creepy, surprisingly rousing, jarringly out-of-place, strangely familiar, and even laughably melodramatic all in the same hour-long set. Post-rock, post-grunge, and post-sad-bastard might not be the most fashionable palettes for a band to work with right now, but Calla accomplishes the important task of combining them in a way that’s unexpected, that’s finally post-rock-crit-platitudes.