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Reviews: Callers' Life of Love

Callers' Life of Love

The first time I listened to Callers’ Life of Love was in the car. I cite the situation as an alibi for not immediately recognizing their mid-album cover of Wire’s “Heartbeat.” If I’d seen the track title, perhaps it would have registered immediately as their take on the quietly intense song from Chairs Missing, an album firmly stationed in my all-time top ten. Instead, I had a gradual realization starting midway through the first verse. Sara Lucas’s soulful vocals are the biggest red herring; whereas Wire vocalist Colin Newman’s hushed performance mutes every word, Lucas revels in her delivery, exploring new cadences and elongating notes. My internal debate continued until the first instance of the titular line, at which point I wondered how I ever could have doubted it. Credit Callers for completely making the song their own. Even Big Black’s 1987 version begins with Steve Albini evoking the calm blood pressure of Newman’s delivery before ramping up to industrial chants. If “Heartbeat” is Wire’s “first overt love song,” as producer/fifth Beatle Mike Thorne claimed, Callers’ take is even more overt.

Callers’ cover of “Heartbeat” is also the Rosetta stone for Life of Love: a signifier of the post-punk underpinnings percolating beneath Lucas’s chanteuse vocals. It would be easy to hear a few of the more straightforward songs—the title track, the 50s pop of “How You Hold Your Arms”—and slot Callers in the pre-punk era, somewhere between jazz night clubs and early ’70s folk. But Ryan Seaton’s guitar work keeps Life of Love unpredictable, spiking out with no wave atonality on “You Are an Arc,” making a pointillist bed of acoustic plinks on “Dressed in Blue,” and tip-toeing upwards on closer “Bloodless Ties.” These moves often put Seaton’s guitar at odds with Lucas’s expressive vocals, parrying for space and attention.

So who wins these fencing matches? Lucas, every time. It’s impossible to upstage her voice, which wobbles knees on “Roll” and demonstrates powerful range on “Young People.” She could easily be recording stacks of standards back in New Orleans, but challenging her voice with Seaton’s quick jabs is a more compelling long-term option, even if the lone cover on Life of Love demonstrates more heart (no pun intended) than any other track on the album.

Callers’ current tour with Wye Oak hits a sold-out Middle East Upstairs tonight, so if you’re fortunate enough to have tickets, you’ll get a stellar pairing of contrasting developments. Jenn Wasner’s recent emergence as a solo-shredding guitar hero didn’t happen overnight, but every Wye Oak release has been full of character and catharsis. Callers, on the other hand, have an assured aesthetic on their second album, but would benefit from opening up. Hopefully they’ll each take notes for the Wye Oak Callers Mega-Band album in 2012.