In 2002, Wilco got credit for busting open the doors of the familiar and, by then, relatively conservative sound of alt-country by releasing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A radical blueprint for postmodern roots music, Yankee emerged as something remarkably adventurous and bold, albeit still anthemic. The thing is, though, a year prior to that, Chicago psych-folk strummers Califone had already begun to tweak alt-country into something much weirder and more experimental. And two years later, they’ve continued to grow by leaps and bounds.
Califone’s latest album, Quicksand/Cradlesnakes is a mish-mash of futuristic Brian Eno-isms and back-porch stomps that successfully execute what could best be described as a hoedown on the moon. Songs like “Mean Little Seed” and “Michigan Girls” stay in tune with traditional roots music, yet are offset with an added touch of white noise and feedback, something that would have only accidentally interfered with recordings of the genre’s pioneers.
Once you get past the handful of sedate, folky songs on the album, it starts to get really bizarre, in all the best ways. “Your Golden Ass” takes Tom Waits-style psych-ward blues and adds some dazzling slide guitar work. “Slower Train” begins slow and simple, but builds up to a gigantic Flaming Lips-like spectra-sonic masterpiece.
Yet, all of this isn’t to say that Califone is averse to crafting more accessible tracks, as the album features some remarkably catchy highlights, no matter how worn and abrasive their facade. Almost every song on Quicksand is worthy of a jug band singalong, let alone one in the comfort of your own automobile. “Vampiring Again” is akin to vintage Pavement, cleaned up and twanged-out. And the chorus of “Your Golden Ass” begs for call-and-response crowd participation. When Tim Rutili sings “make your/make your/make your move,” over buzzing, low-tuned guitars, the group seems to unknowingly ease into a bizarro world hit single.
Though there are a handful of existing strains that make up Califone’s musical DNA, their combinations collide in ways previously thought unimaginable, even in a post-Yankee climate. The mixture of sounds on Quicksand/Cradlesnakes is bizarre, beautiful, anachronistic and timeless.