By Tom Lynch
For nearly a decade, Califone has sounded like no other band you’ve ever heard.
Built from the carcass of Red Red Meat, Tim Rutili’s creation immediately went beyond Meat’s blues-rock leanings towards a new Americana, integrated with electronic elements, various instruments and an experimental delivery that bordered on the avant-garde. Along with Rutili’s abstract lyrics—poetic and sad that could easily stand on their own without musical accompaniment—matched with his whispery, gravel-terrain voice, Califone’s peculiarity was grounded by Rutili’s acoustic guitar work, either finger-picking or with slide, and a new folk was born.
The band released two phenomenal EPs in 1998 and 2000 before its full-length debut in 2001. “Roomsound” delivered in every respect, as did its proper follow-ups, 2003’s “Quicksand/Cradlesnakes” and 2004’s “Heron King Blues.” This month the band released its fourth traditional full-length—there was an EP compilation and a couple instrumental records in there—and it’s, surprisingly, the band’s best yet. “Roots & Crowns,” on Thrill Jockey, is one of the best records of the year.
Assured and advanced, “Roots & Crowns” begins with patented Califone oddity and slides through the first five tracks with gentle but exciting fluidity. At “Our Kitten Sees Ghosts,” the second act begins, through the all-violin “Alice Crowley,” the gorgeous cover of Psychic TV’s “The Orchids” (“And in the morning after the night/ I fall in love with the light,” heard with Rutili’s voice, is jaw-dropping) and the acoustic-guitar based “Burned by the Christians” which, with the strong vocal harmonies, could be the record’s most poignant moment.
Last summer Rutili left Chicago for California for family reasons and to work on film soundtracks, effectively separating the band by hundreds and hundreds of miles. A hiatus followed, along with questions of whether or not the band would return, considering the distance and the theft of the band’s gear while on tour for “Heron King Blues.” “We were all talking about it after a while,” Rutili says. “We missed each other, we missed playing together. There’s not better people [in the world] for me to play with… We took some time and talked about making a record, getting together for a couple weeks. We did it in Chicago. I came in with four or five songs. We got done with a lot of stuff… It felt great to be with everyone. It was nice to go through the process of realizing that this is something we don’t need to do, that we’re doing it because we want to and enjoy it, that it’s not some dire, desperate thing.”
A newfound hopefulness can be heard on “Roots & Crowns,” evidence that Rutili and crew have fallen “in love with the light.” “I think it hopes to be hopeful,” he says of he record. “Hopeful is a good word for it.”
Rutili says that the album was put to tape all over the country, in both Chicago and California, Phoenix and even the dressing room at The Hideout, while he waited for a friend. Aptly so, as for years, Califone’s relied heavily on improvisation, both on stage and in the studio during the writing process. “It’s really fun that way,” Rutili says. “I’m sure someday we’ll do it the old way, but for right now we do this. Some of [the songs] are fully written when I come in, though, and the things that are changeable, that’s what everyone adds… sometimes I don’t [teach] them a song until the tape is rolling.”
Considering the depth and detail that’s put into lyrics, there may be an added difficulty in balancing the writing of the words and the writing of the music. “Writing the music is one thing, putting a song together is another,” Rutili says. “I just try to work on something until it doesn’t bother me. Sometimes I labor over lyrics. There are some [lyrics] I really labor over, and some rock critic will say, ‘This guy doesn’t make any sense, this doesn’t mean shit, it sounds like he’s drunk and stupid.’ And I’ll be like, ‘Okay, I really worked hard on that, and I think it’s great.’ I just do what I enjoy, we do what we love to do, and hope that people come to it fresh and get enjoyment out of it, too.”
Rutili says that his favorite people live in Chicago, that this is where he was born and raised, where there are the most people that he loves. But California’s not all that bad. “It’s okay,” he says. “It’s like Chicago if Chicago was nice and had mountains… and there’s a lot better Asian food.”
Califone plays October 21 at Empty Bottle, 1035 North Western, (773)276-3600, at 10pm. $12.