Califone’s technofolk soft-sells high art.
Thursday, May 3, 2007
Califone’s latest CD Roots & Crowns is a beautiful marriage of earthy folk and high-tech wizardry. It’s also both accessible and challenging. The album is full of vocalist Tim Rutili’s strange and striking lyrical imagery over a scrapbook of cut-and-pasted found sounds and sturdy songs.
It all begins with “Pink & Sour,” a mix of clanging guitar and tropical percussion. The next song, “Spider’s House,” is one of the many high points of the release. Under lyrics about chiming icicles and trembling raindrops, “Spider’s House” is a lovely, quirky pop song featuring horns that puff hesitatingly at first before coming in with more confidence at the chorus.
More experimental than the two opening numbers are songs like “The Eye You Lost in the Crusades” and “Black Metal Valentine.” The former features down-home acoustic guitar playing that detours into quick flashes of sampled noise. The latter is a collage composed of chopped-up vocals, a recurring drumbeat, guitar bits and segments of sound including what might be someone searching for a station on an AM radio.
Roots & Crowns is more successful than some other recent efforts at mixing acoustic instrumentation and technology. On Califone’s CD, the snippets of samples and drumbeats can sound as organic and natural as the strum of Rutili’s six-string. On “Our Kitten Sees Ghosts,” the clouds of background noise perfectly mesh with the finger-plucked guitar.
Meanwhile, Rutili’s abstract lyricism contributes to the album’s staying power in the mind. He sings: “It’s almost surgical/ The way you shatter/ When you hit the water.”
The opening lyrics of “3 Legged Animals” include a parade of strange imagery: “Hands fit together like medicine/ Butterfly itch on a bottle rocket tail/ Everything is bleeding/ Shake the glass out of your hair/ Spell your name in broken teeth.”
Before forming Califone in Chicago during the late ‘90s, the core of the band was in Red Red Meat, a quirky blues-rock band. Signed to the great indie rock label Sub Pop, the band churned out four CDs, ending with There’s a Star Above the Manger Tonight, which showed the group adding more electronic elements to its sound. At the time, the members of Red Red Meat referenced the obscure ‘70s avant-garde rock band Can, and said they were trying to “synthesize a field recording with a Can aesthetic.” (It’s also a fitting way to describe Califone’s efforts on Roots & Crowns.)
When Red Red Meat disbanded in 1997, Rutili continued to create songs under a new moniker, Califone. In an interview with the online music Web site Cokemachineglow, the songwriter describes his initial hopes for Califone. “When we started doing this, it was a home project,” Rutili says. “The statement of intent would have been ‘easy listening’ compared to what we were doing with Red Red Meat. This was supposed to be making little pop songs out of found pieces. It was supposed to be just a little home project, and it slowly grew from there.”
Eventually, former members of Red Red Meat, including percussionist Ben Massarella and drummer Brian Deck, started to contribute to Califone. Members of the Chicago indie groups Tortoise, the Fruit Bats and Eleventh Dream Day played on Califone’s debut titled Roomsound.
Since the initial release, Rutili has gone in some interesting musical directions. One of Califone’s CDs, 2002’s Deceleration One, includes the band improvising to film loops by video artists Jeff Economy and Carolyn Faber before playing live to a showing of The Mascot, a surreal short film from 1934 starring a handful of puppets. In addition, Rutili has worked on several soundtracks, including a documentary on bull riding titled Rank.
Probably his most high-profile side project was working in Ugly Casanova, a band started by Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock to play acoustic material. The group released one album, Sharpen Your Teeth, and toured in 2002.
Opening for Califone will be Eric Johnson’s Fruit Bats. On “A Bit of Wind,” the Fruit Bats create music that recalls the breezy pop of the Beach Boys, while “Slipping Through the Senses” is a spacey acoustic strummer.
Johnson, the singer/songwriter for the Fruit Bats, just recently joined a new group. Since releasing their latest CD Wincing the Night Away, the hugely successful alt rock band The Shins has added Johnson as a member.
CALIFONE AND THE FRUIT BATS play 9pm Friday, May 4, at Fernwood Bar, 24 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1, Big Sur. $13. 667-2422.