Distorted Americana

In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines: The members of Califone
Chris Strong

Roots & Crowns
Thrill Jockey

Recently, a freak-folk musician of some repute remarked to me offhandedly about a nearby laptop player's emission of noisy minimal music. "It's folk music," he opined, a view that no doubt would set a folkie's (or a No Depression reader's) dentures on edge. The folk musician's need to make a noise—whether on an acoustic guitar, an empty likker jug, a washboard, or a laptop—directs his hands to convert the nearest object into an instrument.

Califone, originally a recording project of ex-Red Red Meat singer-guitarist Tim Rutili (though ex-bandmates Ben Massarella and Brian Deck are heavily involved), have been mining the territory between acoustic instrumentation and digital replication. Their amalgamation of dobros, banjos, mandolins, and samplers creates one of the most singular sounds of "Americana" in the 21st century. "When we're making these records," Rutili confides to me over the phone from his new abode out west in California, "we're just kinda shit-piling things on top of the basic idea of melody and chord structure, then subtracting everything that doesn't work. [We don't] approach things as a rock band...working things out in the practice space, but [rather] work things out while recording and experimenting in that way."

Whereas 2003's Quicksand/Cradlesnakes showed them to be adept at textural rustic rock (much like fellow tourmates and Chicagoans Wilco), 2004's Heron King Blues went even further out, with the mumbled surrealism of Rutili's words nestling in a glorious wreckage of blues, jazz, post-rock, and even slinky disco beats. Abstract, crepuscular, and at times hallucinatory, parts of the record (Rutili admits) owed their delirium to sleep-deprivation. But if Heron was about midnight's shadows, their most recent record, Roots & Crowns, is comparatively brighter, though as intricately layered. Opener "Pink & Sour" is a bewildering mix of hand drums, slide guitar, and xylophones, clanging like a junkyard gamelan around lyrics that evoke a whirlwind of visual textures.

More song-oriented, the album also features some of the band's most delicate and straight-ahead work to date: "Sunday Noises" and "Burned by the Christians" are stunning yet understated. "Alice Crawley," a brief instrumental, sounds like an ancient fiddle tune slowly seeping into the album's centerpiece, "The Orchids." Having reached a dead end with his own songwriting after Heron, Rutili turned to an unlikely source for inspiration, Genesis P-Orridge's industrial band Psychic TV. Rutili informs me that "the song was really inspiring in the way that VU songs were inspiring when I was younger. Listening to that Psychic TV song made me want to write again."

On "The Orchids," Califone glean the redemptive qualities of the lyrics via chiming acoustic guitar and undertow of distorted bits of harmonica and drum, a play of light and shadow. When I ask about their quilting of clashing sounds and timbres, Rutili reveals that the juxtapose is crucial to Califone's aesthetic: "At the bottom of it is the idea of putting two very different things next to each other to create something that is neither of those things. That's what the music is about: accepting the fact that you can put anything together, and if you put it together right, it will work."

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