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Califone - Roots & Crowns

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Artist: Califone

Album: Roots & Crowns

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Nov. 5, 2006

Like many of its Chicago contemporaries, Califone uses its pronounced technical proficiency not to make a big sound, but to weave dozens of little hooks and motifs into a thin, unassuming fabric. On 2004’s Heron King Blues, Califone buried its riffs and melodies in Beefheart abstraction. By contrast, Roots & Crowns is almost an out-and-out pop record, but a complex one, a pop record that will reward months of deconstruction without punishing casual, one-time exposure. If it takes a bit more commitment to do something consciously unoriginal, then this was probably a harder record to make, although it also sounds like it must’ve been a fun one.

“A Chinese Actor,” more than anything else in the C-fone catalog, harkens back to bandleader Tim Rutili’s scruffy rock band Red Red Meat’s ’90s output. On the other hand, “Spider’s House” applies the band’s aesthetic to cheery psychedelic funk. Most of the balance floats between those poles without ever getting particularly sparse or rambunctious.

As is often the case, the immediate standouts are mostly ballads. “The Eye You Lost In The Crusades,” “Burned By The Christians” and “Our Kitten Sees Ghosts” draw as much strength from Rutili’s secret language of metaphor (his refusal to talk about feelings, at all) as from six-lifetime croak of a voice. Their mix of ancient elegance and rummage-sale experimentation makes them refreshingly timeless (if that makes any sense), unafraid of discouraging both the roots snob and the artsy intellectual. “3 Legged Animals” retains that melancholy in a straight-ahead rock structure; if it’s not the best track on Roots, it’s at least the new joint’s quasi-anthemic answer to “Vampiring Again” (from the mightly 2003 LP Quicksand/Cradlesnakes, which, come to think of it, is this album’s most obvious precedent.)

Yeah, it’s a mite catchier than Heron King Blues, but Roots & Crows ain’t much of a stylistic shift from Rutili and pals’ earlier material. Sometimes Califone makes abstract epics like Heron King; sometimes the band riffs on particular genre conventions (be they those of Southern rock, spaghetti western soundtracks, or whatever else seems like fun) while remaining essentially its smoky, seedy, obfuscationist self. Most noticeably in his lyrics but also in his general artistic carriage, Rutili has always been a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a tortilla with a question mark on it. It’s hard to say much about Roots & Crowns in relation to his earlier work, save that it’s what he wanted to do this time.

By Emerson Dameron

Other Reviews of Califone

Quicksand / Cradlesnakes

Heron King Blues

All My Friends are Funeral Singers


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View all articles by Emerson Dameron

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