The music of Mira Calix — Chantal Passamonte to her friends and family back in Durban, South Africa — is neither composed nor produced on a computer, though it sounds as if it was. Having burnished her ambient techno style at Warp Records, England’s premier “laptop-music” label where she worked in the promotions department before making her own recordings, Calix uses old instruments, prosaic percussion (literally, sticks and stones) and vocals in her work, though to the casual listener the result isn’t much different from the product of software-happy labelmates Autechre and Boards of Canada.
Listen more closely, though, and you’ll soon come to appreciate the finer details of her recording, such as how the rocks are struck together and the boxes beaten to simulate a conventional trap set, Calix’s “battered” Fender Stratocaster, the analog synths and vintage instruments picked up during her global sojourns as a DJ, and her voice, which is especially important since Calix calls herself a singer-songwriter. The vocals aren’t difficult to make out, but the words — if that’s what she’s singing — are.
Her second album, “Skimskitta,” doesn’t reveal her influences (Satie, My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins) quite as readily as her first one, 2000’s “OneOnOne,” which was a more conventionally ambient collection. Recorded at her home studio in the English countryside, “Skimskitta” reeks of personality from the opening track, “Again, It Starts,” on which a creaky door invites you into her living room. Then, over half a dozen subsequent cuts, calliope-like keyboards, moans from the basement and a series of unrelated melodies slowly devolve into creepy atmospherics. It may give visitors the impression they’ve stumbled into David Lynch’s living room, but eventually Calix comes up from the cellar, puts on the kettle and sits down for a heart-to-heart that lasts through the album’s hauntingly beautiful centerpiece, “I May Be Over There (But My Heart Is Over Here),” which she calls a “torch song.” You could also call it a wash of synths overlaid by a lovely, wordless vocal track, but the effect is quite the same: heartbreak.
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