The more Califone inches toward sounding like the last couple Red Red Meat albums the better they become, and when they veer away from the good ‘Meat, then things start to take a turn for the worse again. Case in point is this hapless, semi-comatose new record that should have started with the last two tracks, while the rest of the album should have been scrapped.
Way back in 1995 when Red Red Meat released Bunny Gets Paid, I wasn’t even listening to anything that sounded remotely like it (for the record, I was listening to Autechre), but the album seemed original and intimate, so much so that I was tugged along with a lot of others. What so solidly impressed listeners was that hand-rolled, dark, rootsy sound, the barnyard clatter in the background with lots of amplified guitar feedback, and Tim Rutili’s bronchitis-ripped vocals. The vocals are what still keeps me interested. He’s got a great voice. Not to mention the production was incredible on those last couple Red Red Meat records, conjuring up the acoustics of some derelict house in a strange forgotten neighborhood on the edge of a bad city. It was an album that seemed to suffer from the pain of its own knowing nostalgia—as if slightly shy about its own lack of experimentation in the face of contemporary acts like Braniac and Tortoise. But the shyness worked. Two years later There’s a Star Above the Manger tried to answer to a failing that I doubt any fan of the band felt existed, by pulling a lot of post-rock stunts that weren’t terrible, but didn’t really match up to the expertise of even lesser-known artists like Rome or Slicker.
The side-project Califone that became the main project only after the dissolution of Red Red Meat wasn’t something I found all that worth following, based on early seven-inches and what I heard thanks to the Internet. Until the release of Quicksand / Cradlesnakes I simply continued to enjoy Bunny Gets Paid and left it at that, expecting to never fork over money to help Mr. Rutili pay the rent again. But on Quicksand / Cradlesnakes something of a higher order of business was put together—fresh, smart music was being made again. This Califone album felt like what I expected, and wanted, from a theoretical new CD by Red Red Meat: A synthesis of their last two records, with the trenches of roots-rock nicely paired to the sounds of the avant-garde.
Heron King Blues continues the band’s progress, but only slightly. The laconic first couple tracks are so drowsy it’s hard not to hope for something to break the suspense, but unfortunately it’s not a subdued beginning meant to lull the listener into a false sense of boredom. The album drags the tumbleweed through another few yawning songs before anything remarkable happens. I didn’t hope that Califone was going to bust out with a squeal of feedback, a yowl, and a earful of drums, no, just for someone to get off the goddamn couch. The lazy, summer sound that Califone has strived so hard to perfect now risks drowning its sleepy musicians in the backyard pool. I don’t know if it’s something in the morphine, but Califone needed a friend to come into the studio on this record and slap the band in the faces and say, “Wake, up! Wake up, you bastards! You’re making a record!”
Perhaps that’s what happened on song six of seven, “Two Sisters Drunk on Each Other”. Someone, and from the herky-jerky rhythm, I’d say it was someone from !!!, came in and slapped these boys around and told them to get rolling. But it was too late. You can’t save a record on the second to last tack. The album’s secret eighth song should have been it’s opening track—it’s got more energy, more craven passion and barbaric enthusiasm for the real noise of the barnyard ruckus than the first five songs combined. The title song, “Heron King Blues”, is fantastic, but now we’re already at the proper end. All of a sudden I’m hearing the introduction of Can to Califone—the beautiful, percussive repetitions that go on forever, the jarring guitar and the warbly-wiggly electronics—all that good Krautrock stuff, it’s all there, and it’s really good, but it’s too late.