Anna Calvi: Anna Calvi – review


Pedantry first. This rather fine debut album by singing guitarist Anna Calvi finds her howling: "The Devil! The Devil will come!" on a lonesome guitar track called "The Devil". It uncannily recalls a keening piano track, also called "The Devil", on PJ Harvey's criminally underrated White Chalk album.

There's more. Rob Ellis, Harvey's regular drummer, is the co-producer of this elegant, harmonium-heavy, 10-track debut. The timbre of Calvi's voice quite often recalls the antic Polly, and the dramatic themes in her songs – desire, loss, devils, female manfulness – have been previously explored by Harvey.

But we should not hold any of this against Calvi. Are there ever any true originals? It is probably impossible for a British woman to pick up a guitar and sing alto in a minor key about anything emotionally significant without recalling Harvey. Moreover, Harvey has a new album out soon, in which she rewrites the British folk idiom. It sounds nothing like this.

So Calvi is no mere Harvey copyist. If Florence Welch had stayed on the course signalled by her early song "Girl With One Eye", she might have arrived in quite a similar place to Calvi, who comes from south-west London, the plush yang to Welch's grittier south-east yin. Drama is key. Calvi's debut single – "Jezebel", not included here – was a song once sung by Edith Piaf, in which Calvi's default goth operatics were laid bare.

Devils, tick. Desire, tick. Jezebels, check. Even though there is no mention of roses, you know where you are with Calvi – tilting at perdition, red lipstick sharpened. But she can be original, too. The first track here ditches the try-hard pop rule that states that you must start an album with your most accessible song, to hook in the punters with ADHD.

Instead, "Rider to the Sea" is a wandering guitar instrumental, in which reverb alternates with pregnant pauses to delicious effect. Throughout the album, Calvi is revealed as a twang-loving guitarist obsessed with trying to make her instrument sound as hollow and menacing as a bottomless pit. Her greatest asset, however, is the generous range of her sound, from microscopically detailed hush to gale-force.

On "No More Words" Calvi channels something of the spooky Julee Cruise soundtrack for David Lynch's Twin Peaks. Then abruptly, on "Desire", she turns into Bruce Springsteen, swapping all her spacious, haunted minimalism for huge, thwacking drums and a kind of triumphalist lust. There is no bass, here, just Daniel Maiden-Wood's drums, which span the expansiveness of Phil Spector and the subtleties of jazz. Mally Harpaz's eloquent harmonium works hard for Calvi, too, adding a hovering background thrum that can sound like a harp or bagpipes.

A tour last autumn with Nick Cave's Grinderman can't have hurt Calvi's market base, given the deep red hue of Calvi's billowing jib. But Brian Eno is also a fan, recognising Calvi's thoroughly geeky penchant for "sound paintings". Her debut takes a swirl of familiar tropes and reframes them; it's a gutsy and sonorous start.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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