Why would someone sing when they can play the viola like a champ? Probably for the same reason (or personality quirks) that someone would move to Minnesota from Los Angeles. Anni Rossi wants to be a star.
Listening to Afton, her latest EP, provides something of a skimmed psychoanalysis of a lady with quick fingers and hazy consciousness. Described as a viola pop wunderkind, Rossi dips into mountain rivets of obscure Americana both vocally and metaphorically. Her skills on the viola are almost dominated by a jarring siren sound familiar to The Arcade Fire, or even the poet Sonia Sanchez, with her clucking tongue. Rossi carries some similarity to African-American poetry, for her untraditional use of classical orchestration is in its own right a delineation of lyrical concatenation.
Her instrumentals often sound like guitar strumming, especially in the opening song ‘Machine’ (formerly known as ‘Arctic Swing’), while she sings that “nourishment is temporary”. Contemporary political nuance, perhaps? She leads on: “We will still have our hair, we will still have our skin”. Her satirical lyrics are no rouge, though they are the height of Afton‘s complexity.
In just six tracks Rossi manages to cram in enough crazy vocal tics, hiccups and squeals to send less patient listeners running. Take the second song ‘Venice’, for instance, with its non-refrain of “brick and stone / we all fall down” – a twist on the childhood staple regarding sticks and stones, meshed with another naïve game of children holding hands and rhyming about a plague that wiped out most of London; ‘Venice’ is mysterious, but like a story told with no ending, Rossi sighs then putters out.
Come the third song, her “choir performance” of ‘Ecology’, we’re presented with something as incongruous as an art collage at a science fair. ”Caterpillars can swim as they pinch their bodies,” she sings; her euphemisms are scattered, though clever. Then, in the EP’s second half, Rossi barely stops short of self-admittance to a psychiatric ward. Who once said that insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting a different outcome? Perhaps it’s us, the audience, who are the insane ones to listen to Afton repeatedly and expect to finally understand the words (and the whining and humming), because no matter how many times we hear Rossi croon the messages are no clearer.
Like a ventriloquist Rossi may be the voice of her puppet but the viola is still the centre of attention, the stringed friend on her shoulder twittering as brilliantly as her vocal assault is disarming. ’Central Utah’ is the most serene track, but like a prolonged set change at a theatre it soon stalls and becomes mildly uncomfortable. For too many of these songs, Rossi lashes about without settling into the groove of a promising solo. Playing these songs live she is entrancing but, on disc, Afton is like having the icing without the cake.
[4AD; October 20, 2008]
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