Monday, November 06, 2006

califone roots & crowns

it's been some 15 years since tim rutili and company first committed tunes to the recording studio. as red red meat, they put out 4 full-length CDs during the mid-1990s, three for the famed sub-pop label. there is a sense in which RRM posed a windy-city alternative to seattle grung, trading nirvana's heavy led zep riffing for stones lick and, increasingly, delta blues field recordings filtered through a krautrock aesthetic (as they were fond of stating). uncerimoniously and with a few minor lineup changes, they became califone, releasing the first of two eponymous EPs in 1998 that extended the experimentation of the last RRM recording into new realms of dirty slide guitar and found percussion filtered through all kinds of disorted electronic wonkiness. (it was around this time that i saw them at a real shit-hole of a performance space in the 4000 block of lorain avenue in the ohio city neighborhood of cleveland, a cold damp broken down mess of a room with a makeshift stage, a nominal admission price and a 7-11 across the street where you could buy beer to bring in. only three guys in the band at the time, califone played a monster set with everyone doubling on everything and one percussionist catching everything in a delay that made the whole room pulse into one giant throbbing delta slide trip-hop loop.)

three full-length releases and two "film soundtracks" later (plus a stones cover disc circulated only at shows), califone is back with a new one, roots & crowns. while i would never expect these guys to sell a smany recordings as beck (who by the way could learn a few things from califone), they deserve to sell as many as wilco; at the very least i'm always surprised when fans of will oldham (palace brothers, bonnie prince billy), jason molina (songs: ohia, magnolia electric company), iron & wine, etc. either don't get that excited about califone or simply don't know it. and so i'd like to say that roots & crowns may be their big breakout record, or will be the one to reel in the neophytes and the uninitiate alike. over at pitchfork, for example, amanda petrusich writes that "Roots and Crowns is Califone's most sophisticated record to date, a natural-- if lighter-- extension of 2004's Heron King Blues, and a coherent aesthetic declaration....This is Califone's climax" -- all of which i'd pretty much want to qualify to one degree or other. one "tristam c" writes (at metacritic, along with links to many other reviews), "The truth is Roots & Crowns is full of songs Jeff Tweedy is currently kicking himself for not writing." yeah, except tweedy has always had, or at least demonstrated, a stronger pop sensibility than rutili. (i can't imagine tweedy grooving out at home to there may be moments on all of the preceeding califone and red red meat albums i like better than anything i've heard on roots & crowns so far. however, it increasingly grows with each listen.

"pink & sour" starts the proceedings off with a nice little hand-drum groove with just the right electronoise commentary. (joshua klein is not far off when he calls this "Brian Eno by way of the Mississippi delta.") next we get "spider's house," which takes us for a wistful trip down penny lane it seems. (i mean, is that a horn section? "sunday's noises" is a quieter still, a straight acoustic-guitar ballad with seemingly accordian-chord background. none of these are terra incognita for the boys, but there does seem to be a level of refinement to the approach and the finished product -- not so much that there's a new bag of tricks here (they did apparently have all their gear stolen between this CD and the last), but that

track 4, "the eye you lost in the crusades," to me is where the disc finally settles in, from that opening "CHUNK" of acoustic guitar that actually spins out a descending hammered-on lick that nick drake would've killed for, to the utterly perfectly and gently electro-noodled string fills of the bridge that ultimately, in the last minute, carry the song into a whole new harmonic terrain. this is at once followed by "a chinese actor," which clearly wants to be the rocker of the disc, with its drop-D open-tuned lead guitar and I-IV-V progression, and yet refuses that by virtue of the muted drumming and (gasp!) hand-claps.

"our kitten sees ghosts" is another quiet acoustic guitar gem, practically the whole built on a single chord and fingerpicking pattern (supplemented with some really seamless splicing in of backwards recording). this might be the track to pick for the bedroom, knowing full well that rutili does not need to resort to cheap, explicit seduction: i'll take his "it's almost surgical the way you shatter when you hit the water drawn" over sam beam's "i'll clear the thornbush in your path that burns a scented oil that i'll drip into your bath" any day. and if i might say a word about rutili's vocals: while giving early michael stipe a run for his indecipherability money, rutili continues to spin through his chainsmoking percodan drawl some of the starkest and physically brutal imagery that is nevertheless quite beautiful. here are the words for "burned by the christians" entire:
wire in the teeth while we warm twine while we breathe skip notes 
and bless where you been we lose days -broke hearts are whole or
burned by the christians recline held under your tongue like a tiny
stone carried home sung throated air down your spine crown cooks
light we wolfed and whale bellied on we shone down blinder and
winterless days lost a black ocean recline held under your tongue
like a tiny stone paid and gone
it's certainly ironic also that the clear pick for a "smash hit" here -- the roots & crowns equivalent to "michigan girls" from quicksand/cradlesnakes turns out to be a psychic TV cover -- a fact i really don't know what to make of.

"black metal valentine" shows a bit of extended trip-hop flair before, again, it turns into an altogether different song, almost a dejected rock anthem, in the final 1:30. "rose-petal-ear" might be the most overtly and yet quietly "experimental" track of the set, while "3 legged animal" again might be the second single before :if you would" takes us out on another quiet, experimental note.

in short, if any of this sounds appealing, roots & crowns will not disappoint as an introduction to califone. regardless, you'll want to go out and treat yourself to copies of roomsound, quicksand/cradlesnakes and king heron blues as well.

1 comment:

Ryan said...

it never surprises me when wilco or jason molina fans don't immediately respond to califone. califone is much harder to love than wilco or molina. wilco is about as hard to love as a 3-month old lab. I like all of the above, tho. the califone live show is indeed very, very good. they are one of those bands I can listen to when I can't listen to anything else.