Calla singer-guitarist Aurelio Valle’s weapon of choice, a maple-finish, Gibson hollow body, was once owned by Sun Records’ biggest recording artist. The six-foot-seven, droopy-eyed Sleepy LaBeef, a husky Razorback by birth, and Calla (Valle, bassist-keyboardist Sean Donovan, and drummer-programmer Wayne Magruder—three slight Texans by the grace of God) both traffic in collapse. The former desegregated gospel and mountain music into rockabilly, while the latter have urbanized the Western soundtrack sounds of Ennio Morricone with a dash of metallic hubbub.
Where Labeef’s concoction goes down hard and fast, Calla’s dulcet gloom oozes with fiery foreboding (Sorghum and Gomorrah?). Their 1999 self-titled debut juxtaposed country and city (a reverberating, open note hanging over a typewriter’s clatter in “Only Drowning Men”), while 2001’s Scavengers played down the culture clash in favor of stronger melodies (“Fear of Fireflies,” “Tijerina,” and “Love of Ivah,” in particular).
Calla, New Yorkers since 1997, sound thoroughly metropolitan on Televise, their third album—proof that you can take the country out of the boy after all. With the rural tenor removed, the metamorphosis is complete. (How appropriate: Scavengers‘ cover bared an insect, Televise‘s a human face. Come back, Gregor! There’s hope yet!)
Producer Chris Zane takes pages from Nigel Godrich’s playbook (imagine Beck’s Mutations injected into Radiohead’s OK Computer), swapping the trio’s past sparsity for a circuit board of sound (riffs! distortion! processed vox!) in the opener, “Strangler.” But rampant minimalism reigns in the three successive standout cuts. An eerie keyboard quivers through “Monument.” In “Astral,” Valle coos oblique reassurances (when discernible, his lyrics generally show him either running toward or away from some faceless woman—standard introspective rock fare, for sure) over a drizzle of clean guitar notes. And “Don’t Hold Your Breath,” Calla’s most traditionally hookish tune, slowly builds, culminating in a telling, desperate chant of “Is that all?”
Televise‘s second act stumbles through a glut of mid-tempo glumness, leaving the title track to provide the denouement. “Televised” is a devastatingly slinky rave-up with two contrasting guitar riffs—the first a palm-muted staccato chug, the second a smooth slide down the neck that would make a great ring tone. Partying can be such sweet sorrow.