23 year old Chicago-based singer and violist Anni Rossi is an exciting new prospect. Or so everyone is saying. Recently signed to 4AD and working with producer Steve Albini, her debut album Rockwell, which was recorded in a day, is a strange journey through the mind of a song writer. Sticking mainly to her instrument of choice, but adding in a few extras as required, the album unfolds like a Brothers Grim fairytale. But the end result is more of a nightmare.
Opener Machine (one of her most trusted 'live' songs) is a great introduction to Rossi's voice. Almost immediately it is clear that gliding and flowing vocals are not on the agenda here and she is determined to throw notes to all corners of the room. Musically it is like the viola equivalent of Seasick Steve and by the half way point, things do get more coherent; settling down into quite a respectable slice of folk-pop. The very different sounding (and very short) Ecology follows with pulsing electronic keyboards. Anyone hoping that her voice has settled down by now is in for a huge disappointment. Likewise, the same can be said of anyone hoping for a decent album.
The Ace Of Base cover Living Danger says it all. Forgettable then but probably the best song on the album now. An Ace Of Base cover? Seriously. It is one of the only times Rossi keeps her gymnastic vocals under control. The music is pleasantly low-fi but gets bogged down in deep echoing bass strings half way through. Still, it stands up as a good reinterpretation.
This is about as good as it gets as Rossi manages to turn one of the most exciting vibrant places on earth, Las Vegas, sound mind-numbingly dull. Maybe that is the irony she is going for. The West Coast is a perfect example of one song embodying the nature of the whole album. Just as you start to get engaged, it dives off in a different direction. The lack of structure and melody plagues most of the music on Rockwell and it is this rambling approach that yields very little pay-off. Venice is a very annoying staccato expedition into wavering strings. Oddly, the mix of tuneless viola and Rossi's distant unhinged voice works to a point but when a two and half minute song runs out of steam with a minute to go, you know you're in trouble. There is a bizarre classical break before a completely different song comes in and Rossi loses it completely. A very obvious low point with most of Glaciers and Deer Hunting Camp 17 a close second and third.
A late glimpse of brilliance is Wheelpusher, with Rossi in Laura Veirs mode - serene and reflective - but the song dives up tempo after a minute and then can't decide which speed to maintain. Then it grinds to a halt for another slow interlude before building again and losing the tune. Closing song Air Is Nothing follows and promises the same, this time with consistent tempo. At least the vocals stay at the same pitch, even if it is way too high. Somewhere within all the shrill nonsense is a decent voice trying to get out.
The biggest problem with Rockwell is that of engagement. The album is outrageously short. At a little over twenty five minutes you don't get much time to get involved. Rossi flits from one wandering idea to the next and in just ten songs, and only two over three minutes, it is a brief glimpse at the talent. Some songs really get you hooked, if only to find out where she is going, but that so often leads to disappointment. Her 4AD profile states: "...the energy, depth and eccentricities of her live show have all been successfully translated onto record". It is one of those wonderfully subjective comments (how much energy? How deep? How eccentric?) that you read on press releases everywhere.
Give Anni Rossi time and the inner charm does begin to show through but it is never enough to save her and the album. Rockwell is unfocused and messy, lacking melody and low on ideas with the vocals a constant distracting annoyance. She may be an exciting new prospect but not on this evidence. For the sake of all young musicians trying to make it in this big nasty world, we all hope she leaves this debut behind her and comes back with something much much better.
-- CS (for The Music Magazine)