Anni Rossi is an extremely proficient musician, almost obnoxiously so. She’s classically trained, having begun her musical education at the tender age of three, and plays the violin, viola and piano. Furthermore, she conducted an elementary school orchestra (the existence of which is pretty remarkable on its own), and was a string instructor, passing on the knowledge of her craft to others. Add in the fact that Rossi’s debut album Rockwell was recorded in one day, and it’s hard not to be blown away by the young singer-songwriter’s capabilities.
So it may come as a bit of a surprise, then, that Rockwell is a reasonably simple and sparse album, featuring little more than Rossi’s own voice, viola and drums. It’s a minimal album, but a charming and accessible one, her baroque folk pop style reminiscent of a less histrionic Joanna Newsom. Recorded with Steve Albini in Chicago, Rockwell also brings to mind another unique talent who Albini has worked with, Nina Nastasia. Unlike Nastasia, however, the 23-year-old Rossi is more upbeat, less wrapped in shades of darkness and melancholy.
Rockwell’s voice is the focal point of the album, and rightfully so—it’s gorgeous, pitch-perfect and just a little bit quirky. Yet the use of viola is far more fascinating, as she doesn’t play it in a very traditional manner. She bows it, but she also plucks it, slaps it, strums it, basically allows it to bend and conform to her every whim. In fact, half the time it’s hard to tell that she’s even playing a viola. Nonetheless, as on tracks like the stunning opener “Machine,” it proves to be a versatile and mesmerizing instrument through which to convey Rossi’s beautifully catchy songwriting. On a track like “Las Vegas,” its barely there presence provides a spectral backing, while its melodic plucks on “Deer Hunting Camp 17” find it nearly mimicking an acoustic guitar. Yet in the rare track where an additional element is added, such as synth on the sparse electronic pop gem “Ecology,” Rossi opens up worlds of new opportunity.
Rossi displays her chops well on Rockwell if in a fairly restrained, minimal manner. But every note is perfectly placed, every dramatic vocal flourish provides the perfect counterpoint to her elastic viola. And the whole thing was finished in less than 24 hours. There may have been albums recorded in a shorter amount of time, but I would guess few of them are anywhere near as good as this is.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.