Strength In Numbers, the fifth record by New York’s Calla, had me stuttering on a muzzy concept for a full forty of its fifty-three minutes: the jittery synths were nursing themselves back to health and Aurelio Valle muttered like the bewhiskered miscreant he may or may not be and the New York/Texas cocktail of bulging guitars and sky-wide menace hissed in its beaker and still all I thought I was hearing was some seriously serious rock bewitchery. Then about a minute into a song called “A Sure Shot” it struck me, the definition I couldn’t name: What we’ve got here, said I to the shadows, is a record absorbed fully in kicking Interpol’s ass.
Even before Calla’s last disc, 2005’s Collisions, flopped with several critics it was already being bandied about that the New York rock scene had left Calla for dead. Never mind that Calla wasn’t even a New York band initially, or that they were in New York messing around with their early sound when Julian Casablancas was still going as Lou Reed for Halloween. In 1995 the only New York rock scene was three Starbucks, visual merchandisers in Television t-shirts and a girl to sell the soft drinks. Calla bucked that nothingness plus one early breakup and found themselves able to look and sound perfectly sinister before they even did much playing live. At any rate, the Strokes strode onto the national stage, skinny jeans and all, and then Karen O went “yarr!” and other biodegradable New York bands oozed out of the woodwork and Calla was summarily told to access the service entrance next to execrable frauds like The Flesh, maybe the worst band ever. Six years ago, this was, and the negativity’s persisted. Don’t get me wrong, I severely admire the Strokes and if Karen O wants to mail me a set of turquoise fishnets I might even wear them. But I don’t think I’m alone in the assertion that a bunch of NYC people got marginalized or at least mistaken because the indie circus blew its big top over two bands.
But back to kicking Interpol’s ass: Strength In Numbers is a panicked schizo of a record, not to mention a pretty stellar one. It’s wiry and savage and supple all at once. It’s a ribby wolf on a Zane Grey ridge. Certain songs flick like forked tongues, certain others undulate with sleepy snake-muscles. Guitars are chunky. Guitars are icy. Guitars are even, in one instance, hella Smiths-sounding. Wayne Magruder’s kickdrum stays open all night. Valle, meanwhile, regularly rouses himself from whiskey-sleep, reapplies duct tape to his boot-toes, and sings directly into his pomade jar: “tell me I’m beautiful.”
Strength In Numbers is so highly-textured there’s almost a tension between tracks, a competitive silence in the gaps. Point it too fine, and you’re looking at a collapse under the strain—it’s a hard-working record, it has to be to keep up with itself. “Sanctify,” which approximates that excellent dirty-dancing I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness cut “According to Plan,” opens the album with synthy background chatter before the first riff explodes like a bucket of bleach on a pool table: “idolize from the inside“‘ Valle sneers, “Sympathize/cut you down to size” (he’s playing your song, Paul Banks). “Sylvia’s Song” implants a bluesy-intro false memory before deciding it would quite like to take the snare out for a run, thank you—Magruder oversees that and Valle sings this time like he’s crushing a paper cup between his fingers. “I saw a smile I couldn’t place/cause it was slapped off her face.” Banks: “Wha? They can’t do that, can they?”
Breath uncaught, it’s on to “Sleep In Splendor” and “Rise” both of which are filled with sighs and scribbles that go nowhere in particular, like Low freebasing Elliott Smith. Then it’s…but I’m depleted, approximately. Did I mention that “Malicious Manner” sounds an awful lot like Soundtrack Of Our Lives, operative word being awful—but that “Simone” is downright Smiths-like, which might be my favorite moment(?).
Calla recorded Strength In Numbers equally between NYC and Austin; somewhere deep in the creepy heart of Texas there’s a sleazy cinematic goth-centric facial expression. I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness are also Texans and their record was nearly as good as their name. Strength In Numbers is even better. It must be all that distance, or all that oil. Maybe it’s all that money. Or the `Length Of Love.’ ‘Wha? They can’t do that, can they?’