Califone

[6 May 2003]

By Thomas Bartlett

By the time Califone came on stage sometime past 11, Brokeback, a Tortoise spin-off, had already played an hour-long set, and I was thoroughly sick of music from Chicago. Broadly speaking, post-rock has been a great thing: indie rock has benefited significantly from the infusions of John Fahey and Morton Feldman that it received from the Windy City, and a shot of geeky studiousness is never out of place. But Tortoise and company make music that has become increasingly sterile, increasingly difficult to stomach in its pretentiousness. Feldman’s music envelops you, Tortoise’s music sits at the other side of the room saying, “If you’re very, very hip, and you concentrate very, very hard, you will find me sublimely beautiful and profound. Otherwise, fuck off.” A comparison between the respective titans of the Chicago and New York experimental scenes, Jim O’Rourke and John Zorn, is instructive: O’Rourke is carefully groomed, wears glasses, favors album covers with large sections of austere, tasteful blank space, and has never used a capital letter in his life; Zorn wears camouflage pants, has a rat-tail, and is known for such “game-pieces” as “Cobra”, “Rugby”, and “Lacrosse”.

Califone are indeed from Chicago, but any worries that they would take themselves as seriously as the boys in Brokeback were dispelled as soon as Tim Rutili, the band’s charmingly relaxed front man, took the stage and asked the Village Underground’s cameraman to zoom in on his face, so that it was all you could see on the two small televisions in the corners of the room. After he had zoomed in as far as possible, Rutili asked him to zoom back out, saying “It’s almost like a Flaming Lips show!” The band behind him consisted of two percussionists (Ben Massarella and Joe Adamik), a bassist (unnamed and, sadly, unnecessary), and Jim Becker on banjo, fiddle, and a variety of guitars. They opened with “Michigan Girls”, from their new record, Quicksand/Cradlesnakes, Becker and Rutili starting on plucked fiddle and guitar, the rest of the band slithering in one by one, Adamik sparely delineating the beat on snare drum, Massarella embellishing with little flurries of tapping on the side of a djembe. And then Rutili’s voice, bone-dry and world weary, not so very far off from Jeff Tweedy, singing his cryptically poetic lyrics: “straw bones nails of November clay/ the way you kiss your uncle on the mouth.” It was a testament to the Village Underground’s crystal clear sound system that much of the audience heard, and chuckled at, that line.

The blending of electronics and folk music, while not exactly groundbreaking, is part of what made Quicksand/Cradlesnakes so appealing, so I was surprised and a little disappointed not to see any laptops set up on stage. But Jim Becker, using his fiddle, a loop pedal, and a virtuosic control of distortion and feedback, proved more than able to fill in for the missing computers. He provided the element of unpredictability and instability that makes Califone’s sound really work, and that makes them the musical heirs of the groundbreaking Latin Playboys. But it wasn’t until they went into the chorus of “Michigan Girls”, with Becker providing harmony vocals for Rutili, that the full brilliance of Califone became clear: the instrumental backdrop remained a blend of old-time and electronics, but the chorus is pure Beatles, both harmonically and melodically. For a band that otherwise takes most of its sound from the beginning of the 20th century (the Anthology of American Folk Music) and the end (all things Thrill Jockey), adding this touch from the middle completes the sound in a surprising but entirely logical way. Rutili’s lyrics for this chorus take a rare break from indecipherability to focus on a simple and moving image: “drowned and drinking in light/ God’s eyes are closed/ just like yours.” This seems to recall Thomas Hardy’s “purblind doomsters”, but replaces Hardy’s menace and despair with something comforting. It is that warmth, occasionally in Rutili’s lyrics, but more consistently and more importantly in his melodies, that makes Califone so appealing.

As the show progressed, Califone interspersed songs from Quicksand/Cradlesnakes with songs from their previous record, as well as some that were, if I’m not mistaken, from Rutili’s late, lamented band Red Red Meat. Some of the songs were big, loud blues-rockers, always kept interesting by Becker, who was intent on spiking the proceedings with moments of feedback and processed noise whenever the sound became too tame. One of the highpoints of the show was “horoscopic.amputation.honey”, on which Rutili plays keyboards. Unfortunately, as he explained to us before starting the song, his Wurlitzer electric piano had broken a few nights ago, so he was borrowing a digital keyboard. The tinny sound of the keyboard was a little distracting, but it was still a brilliant performance. It’s Califone’s least folky, most alt.country song, and they manage to out-foxtrot (Yankee Hotel, that is) Wilco on it, fracturing the song’s structure completely, and stuffing all the gaping holes full of loops and electronics.

The concert’s quietest moment was “Mean Little Seed”, with just Becker on banjo and Rutili on acoustic guitar. This was the best chance to hear Rutili’s beautiful guitar playing, filled with unexpected voicings and thorny turnarounds. Here particularly, the style of Bill Frisell’s late ‘90s Americana-inflected work was a clear influence. The song was also a welcome break from the percussion. Both percussionists are highly skilled, and occasionally ingenious, as when Adamik created a monster of a beat that made me think of Stomp, using nothing but a saucepan and a cymbal. But their incessant tinkering and tapping did grow a little bit tiresome, and didn’t have any of the life or spontaneity of Rutili and Becker’s playing. They were just a little overly earnest and ostentatiously concentrated—a bit too Chicago for me.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/califone-030422/