Calla: Televise (Arena Rock)

Calla have a unique, introspective quality in their music that sounds just perfect the way it is.

Restraint isn’t exactly a cherished value in rock ’n’ roll. Press releases for new albums often utilize phrases like “balls out,” “a sensory assault,” and “no holds barred” in describing a band’s sound, the implication being that aggression is inherently a great thing, that more rock is somehow better than less rock. In music promotion terms, it’s a sort of sonic warmongering, and some of us get tired of it.

That’s why Brooklyn’s Calla are so refreshing. They obviously do believe in restraint, and their new album, Televise, shines as a result. It’s a pleasure to hear a band play quietly but still emotively, and to hear a singer (Aurelio Valle, the group’s remarkable guitarist/vocalist/chief songwriter) who has enough confidence in the overall sound to simply relax and let his captivatingly melancholy vocals ease out, gracefully, into the hypnotic slowcore rhythms provided by bandmates Sean Donovan (bass and keyboards) and Wayne Magruder (drums). Nothing here would be improved by being louder or more energetic. Calla have a unique, introspective quality in their music that sounds just perfect the way it is.

“Astral” is a good example of Calla’s aesthetic. With just a few simple guitar arpeggios and minimal bass and percussion (there’s also a little bit of something shimmering in the background), the band creates a sparse musical landscape over which every nuance of Valle’s soft, breathy vocals hits home, emotionally. “Don’t Hold Your Breath” starts out in the same manner, but does add a little kick in the form of some fuzzed-up electric guitar and background shimmer. “Pete the Killer” makes “downer magic” with snatches of lonely electric guitar cries, reverberating keyboard tones, some shy bass, and a vocal that just barely escapes into the mix. “Customized” is perhaps more user-friendly, with a truly compelling vocal from Valle, a strong bass line, and a goth-like moodiness.

This is great modern rock, with restraint. I was genuinely awed by this tune, delighted that Calla were deliberately choosing to make music in such a dark, reflective style more typical of European musicians than most American ones. Valle’s lyrics seem to be angst-ridden odes to past regrets or expressions of numbed acceptance of less-than-satisfying realities, but he’s not truly mopey. The music has subtlety and discipline, and it’s never shrill. “As Quick As It Comes” is a thing of delicate beauty, a bit reminiscent of Mojave 3, but it also made me think of John Lennon’s recording of “Julia” on the White Album. It has that kind of compellingly sad romanticism, and damn, it’s mixed with utter, pristine clarity. I love this kind of stuff.

For those groaning at this point because they’re asking, “Where’s the rock?”, “Televised” is as close as you’re gonna get (and actually the opening, “Strangler,” could almost be considered a rocker, also). It’s got a churning riff and a muscular arrangement, but I wanted to high-five Valle at this point for continuing to sing in that very personal, almost nonchalant manner at times. I am so glad Calla are around; they’re a perfect antidote to the notion that effective rock has to be, well, “balls out.” “No holds barred.” Blah, blah, blah. If by barring a few “holds” you can make albums as good as Calla has done here, well, you’re on the right tracks…ten of ’em on this platter, to be exact. Televise establishes Calla as a group to “watch”…and listen to…and drift off to. For this listener, less is amore, and Calla are one of the nicest surprises of the year so far.

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