Expectations are tricky. Now onto their fifth album (and second for Beggars Banquet), the members of Brooklyn-based Calla have given us a clear picture of who they are and where they exist on the indie-music spectrum. Since releasing their self-titled debut in 1999, they have slowly streamlined their brooding, fractured brand of rock. The sound is easily distinguishable- eerie atmospherics, ominous rhythm section, restrained instrumentation, tortured vocals-but with each album, the band members seem less interested in exploring their creativity and unearthing new discoveries. And with Strength in Numbers, it seems they have done little more than perfect being themselves.
It’s not an unpleasant listening experience. Bandleader Aurelio Valle masterfully conveys a sort of brightness and pleasurable atmosphere in torment and anguish. With a vocal style that teeters between sanity and desperation, Valle makes his pain an intimate experience through his gift of melody and charisma. His rhythm section menaces in the background, driving the songs forward. On “Defenses Down,” Valle sings, “Destined to have fallen from grace with god/ happens when you leave your defenses down,” which, coupled with a precious harmony on the following verse, sets up a winning study on the risks of vulnerability. On “Rise,” a despondent, lonely narrator displays his affection for the esteem in which his lover holds him: Such lines as “I have beaten on a cold dead horse/I have wandered down a blind man’s course,” turn to “If I fail, if I rise/ will you trail behind?”
But these round moments feel incomplete. Musically, Calla treads a similar path on nearly every track on Strength in Numbers. The instruments are so restrained when Valle creates a transcendent moment that it feels deficient. He sings with such honesty and emotion that when the music fails to match the truths he exposes, it’s unfulfilling and feels inconsequential. If they want to match the intensity of the singer’s emotional performance, the band needs to loosen things up a bit.