Califone is more than just a band, but a brand. Califone is a genre. Califone is a self-contained artistic statement that remains consistent, but fluid. For more than a decade, the Chicago-based outfit has been refining and mutating their bizarrely beautiful style of space blues into something transcendent and very, very cool. Their earlier albums like Roomsound revealed them as fascinatingly weird Americana artists, but over time they’ve progressed to the point where it’s hard not to expect something incredible from the group.
Though the group’s latest, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, doesn’t quite surpass the awe-inspiring hymnal murk of 2006’s amazing Roots and Crowns, it comes close and is, as one might expect, a great collection of rustic twang and outer space rock jams. Their first album for new label Dead Oceans, which finds them in similarly impressive experimental folk territory alongside acts like Akron/Family and Phosphorescent, Funeral Singers is easily one of their most accessible. That may not be saying much, given that they’ve included such tuneful gems as “Your Golden Ass” and “3 Legged Animals” on past albums. But the melodies are a bit more direct this time around, albeit still filtered through their unique mélange of effects-addled mechanics.
The basic foundation of Califone’s simultaneously earthy and extraterrestrial sound is strongly embedded on Funeral Singers. Tim Rutili’s smoky rasp, rustic acoustic twang, a healthy dose of distortion, odd arrangements aplenty—none of these things have changed in a very general sense. But then again, nothing is stagnant. First track “Giving Away the Bride” builds over a casual six minutes, opening with some hand percussion and stomping rhythms, layering on electronic noise and tuneful vocal melodies, before ultimately climaxing with a stunningly understated piano lead. It’s one of the most breathtaking things the band has ever done.
“Polish Girls,” similarly, takes a familiar approach with folky beginnings, yet becomes bigger and more awe-inspiring as it unfolds. Backward samples slide against the melody and strings swell and explode. Meanwhile, “1928” buzzes and skips, and “Funeral Singers” clangs and chugs with the murky blues-rock sound of Rutili and Ben Massarella’s former band Red Red Meat. “Buñuel” pays tribute (sort of) to the Un Chien Andalou filmmaker with a melodic gem, and “Ape-like” is an infectious, high-energy hoedown akin to the more hyperactive material of Califone’s new labelmates Akron/Family.
When held up against Califone’s discography as a whole, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers stands out as the band’s most immediate work, though one that’s still delightfully weird. It’s not as polarized as the dark Heron King Blues, nor as abrasively atmospheric as Roots and Crowns. But it once again solidifies the band’s reputation as being some of the most creative and captivating songwriters around.
MP3: “Funeral Singers”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.