Califone plays a robust mix of experimental music with roots in blues, Appalachian folk, psychedelia and pop, while always staying uncompromisingly Califone: textured music that favors the subtle and intimate. Even when the band is at its loudest and most aggressive, there’s a deep well of reserve to its approach. Califone hews to the territory it’s claimed, which can lead to an impression that things change little from one release to the next, but the band’s skill and craftsmanship ensure few outright failures. When the songwriting is at its best, the results can be extraordinary. Tim Rutili’s allusive and impressionistic lyrics include references to high and low culture, literature, movies, biography, personal experience; some of the words are chosen primarily for their sound. Linear meaning generally takes a back seat to overall effect. Rutili’s lyrics may only occasionally flirt with straightforwardness, but they brim with memorable details that work with the music to set evocative moods. He references religion and/or superstition and, although his songs have moments of beauty, he does not turn away from the ugliness inherent in the everyday.
When Red Red Meat closed up shop, Tim Rutili first conceived Califone as a solo project. But the project quickly expanded to include several former members (in addition, the band makes frequent use of guest musicians) and a strong sonic bond with the old band. The two eponymous EPs (later collected, along with a couple of minor bonus tracks, on the single disc Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People) make use of slow tempos, layers of bluesy guitars, electronics (both functional and broken) and plenty of aural space. Rutili (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Tim Hurley (programming, drums, guitar), and Ben Massarella (percussion) are the main performers, with assistance from producer Brian Deck. An indication of where the band is coming from: credits include space echo, socket wrench, treated guitar, bag of nails and cinder block scraping across the floor. The predominant moods are subdued and distant; the tracks make good use of minimal instrumentation. “On the Steeple With the Shakes (Xmas Tigers)” incorporates an icy descending piano line; in “To Hush a Sick Transmission,” bare-bones percussion clanks along like a broken machine while Rutili murmurs his vocals amid abstract instrumentation. The comparatively feisty folk number “Silvermine Pictures” offers a welcome contrast. “Dime Fangs” is a high point, with a confident melody and a lyric that illustrates a Rutili tendency to mix images of the beautiful and innocent with the ugly and seedy: “Dime store fangs and dirty wings/Lap dance from the boys choir/One by one.”
Recorded with a core band of Rutili, Deck and Massarella, with guests providing bass and other instruments, the full- length Roomsound sounds like the work of a more clearheaded band. The melodies are more assertive, the textures more tightly woven. With tracks like “Bottles & Bones (Shade and Sympathy)” and “Tayzee Nub,” the album essentially set a template that subsequent releases followed closely. The pop sense of “Bottles and Bones” adds another facet to the band’s sound. The enhanced CD contains live video of the band performing the excellent “Slow Right Hand,” the earlier “Don’t Let Me Die Nervous” and the folk- flavored “Fisherman’s Wife.”
Quicksand/Cradlesnakes did not expand the band’s sonic palette, but rather developed the strengths displayed on Roomsound. Joe Adamik took over the drum chair, and Jim Becker came on board to provide strings, guitar and vocals. “Vampiring Again” is the band’s best song to date, a terrific pop tune that briefly recalls King Harvest’s 1971 hit “Dancing in the Moonlight.” “Mean Little Seed” and the fiddle-driven “Million Dollar Funeral” are two of their best-realized folksongs. “Your Golden Ass” packs in the sound to achieve a new level of density. The CD also contains a dreamlike animated short titled “Francis.”
Califone and its individual members have always been active outside of the band’s main releases. Members contributed to the 1998 Loftus album as part of a Chicago indie supergroup of sorts. In 2003, Rutili and Deck contributed to Sharpen Your Teeth by Ugly Casanova (a Modest Mouse side project), while Califone teamed up with oRSo to release a three-track single on the Italian Homesleep label. Massarella, Deck, Rutili and Hurley all had substantial involvement in albums released under the oRSo name, while members of oRSo have been occasional contributors to Califone releases. Califone also contributed a recording of “Border Lord” to Nothing Left to Lose: A Tribute to Kris Kristofferson.
Califone’s improvisatory soundtracks to short films are documented as Deceleration One and Deceleration Two. This is undoubtedly background music, but it’s background music with characteristic Califone textures. Rutili has also composed for movies and television.
Heron King Blues finds Califone charting new territory with the funky “2 Sisters Drunk on Each Other,” which makes up in groove what it lacks in melody. The band turns up the guitar volume for the massive 15-minute title track. The mesmerizing “Trick Bird” (with contributions from Wil Hendricks and co-composer Michael Krassner) and “Apple” (which credits co-writers Phil Spirito and Ken Brown of oRSo, respectively, with “oRSo loops” and “oRSo action”) recall the more electronic sound of the early EPs while making clear advances. They also receive colorful embellishment from Massarella’s percussion. “Wingbone” and “Lion & Bee” are sturdy folk-blues in the trademark Califone style. “Sawtooth Sung a Cheater’s Song” starts in the same blues mode and builds to a percussive climax.
Everybody’s Mother collects live, studio, and radio rarities from the band’s early days through Heron King Blues.
The band reached a creative peak on Roots & Crowns, titled after the advice, given by a character in Canadian author Robertson Davies’ novel The Rebel Angels, to “let your root feed your crown.” The centerpiece of the album is a shimmering cover of Psychic TV’s “The Orchids,” a terrific song given a thoughtful interpretation which takes both melody and mood to places Califone normally does not go. Other standouts include “Spider’s House,” a sprightly pop song that makes good use of prepared piano and woozy horns; “Pink and Sour” and “A Chinese Actor,” which bring frenetic energy to the forefront; and the delicate “Our Kitten Sees Ghosts,” with its chorus of “It’s almost surgical/the way you shatter when you hit the water.” Masterful.
All My Friends Are Funeral Singers was followed the next year by the identically-named movie. Songs on the album feature in the film, but they stand on their own and favor the pop and folk sides of Califone rather than a Deceleration-style movie soundtrack. The opener, “Giving Away the Bride,” packs a wallop. “Ape-Like” is a spirited folk stomp with a feel similar to “Million Dollar Funeral.” “1928” is spare, delicate and gorgeous. The fine title track is a first cousin to Roomsound’s “Bottles & Bones.” Although Califone haven’t added any new stylistic tricks to their repertoire — in fact, they have mostly left behind droning blues and scraping cinder blocks of the early days for greater musical structure and more traditional textural elements like banjo, mbira, Wurlitzer and marimba — the songs are consistently strong. Rutili’s lyrics show a slight move toward lucidity. “Alice Marble Gray” comes as close to a ballad as any Califone track ever has, telling a Lake Michigan ghost tale in understated fashion. Rutili’s concern with film is reflected in the biographical “Buñuel.”
The movie, which Rutili wrote and directed and which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is a curiosity. The story concerns a psychic living in a house full of ghosts, and the band appears as a group of ghost musicians. The script and acting are uneven. Prior to the movie’s premiere, the band screened it on tour, accompanying the showings with a live soundtrack. The collector’s edition DVD includes Califone performing in Brooklyn and recording a radio appearance. A video documentary, Made a Machine by Describing the Landscape, features concert footage, interviews and studio sessions filmed 2004–2008.
Stitches has Califone reduced to Tim Rutili working with a revolving cast of musicians that includes the veterans Massarella and Hurley, to make what may be Califone’s most direct album to date. The band is still awash in textures (pedal steel, slide guitars, hurdy gurdy, harmonica, horns), but the atmospherics are downplayed and the sounds tend to be more organic than in the past. Although Rutili’s craftsmanship ensures results that are never less than solid, Stitches offers little new to sway the unconverted. The Enoesque (think “The Big Ship” from Another Green World) title track features sweet harmonies from Jessie Stein of Dead Oceans label-mates The Luyas. “Frosted Tips” displays the band at its most accessible, getting down to business with a basic rock riff roughed up with just enough distortion and clatter to be a Califone track. The exuberant music is offset by the storm clouds that gather in lyrics which revolve around the phrase “In the old watching the new world die.”
“Bells Break Arms,” with references to Esau and Jacob, and “Moses” demonstrate a penchant for religious metaphor. The former, striking and spare, makes excellent use of Rutili’s layered vocals. The latter stands among Rutili’s finest subdued songs. Stitches may not consistently rise to the heights of Roots and Crowns, but it adds worthy complements to the Califone canon.