Califone: A Chicago band gets it right

By Mark Guarino

Packaging American roots music is now an art of marketing experts. With the coming of each holiday season, there are box sets, DVDs, large-scale art books, television documentaries, exhaustive biographies and museum retrospectives of players both major and minor of the past 200-plus years.    

The music of the Chicago band Califone seems to stay far away from the rotating revivals. Smart choice. Spanning eight full-length albums, the band has drawn from about every genre and subgenre of American music — blues, folk, Appalachian country, avant garde freakouts, experimental jazz and funk. Yet on “Roots & Crowns (Thrill Jockey), Califone’s newest, as on most their records, the revisiting does not have to sound like a revival. The elements are there — a fiddle, a banjo, a Cajun accordion — but it becomes fully integrated with the studio loops, feedback noise, exotic percussion, field recordings and other modern accoutrements.   

“A lot of what we take from that old music is texture of it rather than the content of it,” said band chief Tim Rutili. “Because of the content of it, we can’t relate to because we’re all from the suburban Chicago area. We grew up on Led Zeppelin and Black Flag. I don’t think we can relate to the content, but the texture of it is amazing. I think that’s what we do.”   

“Roots & Crowns” is the album that Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” once strived to become. The music seems to exist in its own dream state. With each song, different sounds arrive to then intersect, creating emotional landscapes that never sound fully settled. On “The Eyes You Lost in the Crusades,” bustling blues folk song winnows into something very simple — the sounds of two guitars answering one another — as burps of feedback maintains restlessness. “Black Metal Valentine” is at once many songs — an African-sounding funk song aided with computer beeps and whirs, overlapping vocals and an epic pop song attached at the end as if in the nick of time.   

Contributing to the beguiling sound, Rutili’s lyrics do not pretend to tell a linear story. They are mostly miniature images collected together, some as if their arrangements were created just to accommodate the tricky syntaxes of the song.    

Despite the ambitious backdrop, the album is also Califone’s most accessible album to date, due to the strong melodies that build from front to back. “Spider’s House” features shuffling pop horns, “A Chinese Actor” is fuzzy rock and “Pink and Sour” has the flavor of Talking Heads in their “Fear of Music” and “Remain in Light” period with producer Brian Eno.   

“(Melody) was the only thing we wanted to make sure of when we made this record. Whether it was going to be a crazy noise collage record or if it was going to be a dirty blues record, we wanted to make sure the foundation of anything we did in the songs was better than any of our other records,” Rutili said.   

There is also a cover, “The Orchids,” originally performed by forgotten British experimentalists Psychic TV. Rutili said it was that song was instrumental because it inspired him to write songs again after Califone went on indefinite hiatus and he moved to Los Angeles to pursue scoring music for films and television. “In the morning after the night/I fall in love with the light/it is so clear I realize/and now at last I have my eyes,” he quietly sings.   

“To me that’s about coming through a really dark time and appreciating the dark time you had because it enables you to see the light,” Rutili said.    

The new music’s meditative and often trance inducing sound is the result of the players approaching a crossroads themselves. Rutili, an Addison native, turned 40 just recently, a landmark he said he had difficulty being comfortable with. “For me, it’s about feeling comfortable with yourself and accepting yourself. Being okay with your past and being able to use your past,” he said. “Because I’d like to get older without being delusional.”   

The middle years affected the pacing of this album. Unlike their well-received 2004 album “Heron King Blues” (Thrill Jockey) that was recorded a little over two weeks while the band was on tour (“I know there were days we didn’t get sleep,” Rutili said.) This new album was a reaction to the stress and endless touring that followed. It was recorded between October 2005 and this past May. The band took its time to do things like create weird guitar noises and beef up the friction of the songs. The slower pace was the result of “a place of charity,” Rutili said, adding: “I think ‘Heron King’ was all done in a blur.”   

Even in the throes of a new band, Rutili is also finding he is spending time thinking about his old one. Between 1991 and 1997, the dirty blues rock band Red Red Meat became one of the major rock ambassadors from Chicago, a field that also included Material Issue and The Smashing Pumpkins. Because the personnel of his former band included Califone drummer Ben Massarella and producer Brian Deck, Rutili admits that both bands are not too dissimilar, expect in volume.    

“It seems like the same band, it seems like the same evolution,” he said. He reported that Red Red Meat has received reunion offers to tour over the last “couple of years.”   

But he remains skeptical of respective periods of time in both bands. “I thought that there were a lot of things that we could’ve done with Red Red Meat and Califone that we didn’t do right and could have done better,” he said. “I still feel creative enough to refine those things that started out as good ideas that we didn’t execute in the best way. I think we developed our craft enough to do that now. So it was a great opportunity for this record to do just that.”

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