If you’re trying to get a group’s attention, there’s a tendency to speak louder, forcing your way into respective conversations and trying to overpower the will of the many. But, just to go full Malcolm Gladwell for a moment, there’s a theory that, in fact, to command the attention of a group, you should speak quietly, forcing the audience to be quiet to hear what you’re saying. Anna Calvi explores the power of quiet on Hunted, her lovely fourth album.
Or is it her third-and-a-half? Because Hunted features interpretations of songs from Hunter, her third album, with the addition of some guests on most of the tracks. The melodies are familiar but the songs feel fresh. They’re not stripped down liked an episode of “MTV Unplugged,” with Calvi playing the songs on acoustic guitar with no drums or using only bongos. Instead, they’re atmospherically reimagined, sort of like when a turkey is deboned and reassembled. It looks the same, but the underlying structure is different.
The difference is striking on a song like “Swimming Pool,” which, on Hunted, also features singer-songwriter Julia Holter. The two sound like they’re singing in a marble canyon, the reverb making the track feel like you’re hearing it through a gentle snowstorm made of echoes. Calvi’s guitar is an orchestra, not of traditional, conventional music, but also not of noise. Instead she creates textures that almost transcend our, or at least my, language for music. It’s spiritual and the delicateness of the track grabs the listener, forcing you to push everything out of your head in order to really hear the song. It’s not that the Hunter version of “Swimming Pool” is especially rowdy, but this version is much less opaque.
But even Hunter’s heavier tracks benefit from Hunted’s re-examination. “Indies or Paradise” becomes whittled down to a single guitar hook, a meditation for Calvi. The riff is repeated, not like Aerosmith trying to charm a drunken audience, but like John Coltrane working on trying to unlock a hidden, deeper meaning. Calvi breaks the song down to its smallest unit and then tries to solve the mystery of the song’s essence. But the Hunted version of “Don’t Beat The Girl out of My Boy” is less of a pilgrimage. Working with Courtney Barnett, Calvi provides a straight-forward but more stripped down take on one of her singles.
Hunted is mostly Calvi’s voice and guitar, with some guest vocalists. It’s an interesting move to go smaller, rather than larger, but it pays off. This is a concept album, but it’s not a gimmick album; the execution is what makes this special. Calvi’s voice is beautiful, able to stretch across songs in a way that feels like she’s almost warping the refrains. Her guitar playing is similarly thrilling, reconfiguring dirt and noise in ways that result in something surprisingly pretty. These are all traits Calvi’s shown on other albums but Hunted gives a unique chance to hear them: preferably through headphones in a quiet space where you can give it the attention it’ll otherwise take, one way or another.
review by Steve Ovadia