Do you still call it “Americana” if the music sounds like it comes from outer space?
This is the puzzle that plagues one when listening to Califone, a curiosity of a band, one both traditional and experimental, playing accessible music to turn ones expectations and assumptions completely upside-down. With each release, from the fuzzy epic Quicksand/Cradlesnakes to the obtuse and nightmarish Heron King Blues, the Chicago band finds new ways to take uniquely American traditions like Appalachian folk, bluegrass and Delta blues and filter them through effects and odd instrumentation to make a wholly new type of genre, and a world that few other than Califone themselves inhabit. Roots & Crowns may be merely an extension of this concept and of this practice, but it’s also the perfection of it, or as near as one can get with such abstractions and deconstructions.
Roots & Crowns finds Califone further honing their “blues on the moon” sound, simplifying in some places, elaborating in others, and pushing their ragged playfulness to soaring heights. The album supposedly takes its title from a quote in a Robertson Davies novel, yet the title also serves as something of an indirect description. This is an album deeply informed by its “roots,” yet each song takes that long-descended heritage and “crowns” them with sometimes elaborate ornamentation, sometimes just a subtle touch of this or that. So there you have it, “roots” and “crowns.”
Fundamentally, Roots & Crowns maintains the same approach as heard on any of Califone’s previous albums, but with their most satisfying results yet. It’s more streamlined than Quicksand/Cradlesnakes, more direct than Roomsound, and more seamlessly united than Heron King Blues, which was almost bipolar in its transitions. From the rumbling hand percussion that opens “Pink and Sour” comes a familiarly odd sound. Scratches of guitar, weird, psychedelic slide riffs, and of course Tim Rutili’s surrealist stream-of-consciousness lyrics, sometimes unintelligible, though through the duration of the song he mentions ribcages, tap shoes and taxi drivers and soft vaccinations, among other things. A Beach Boys-like rhythm arises on the pretty, simple “Spider’s House,” a highlight aided by the gleeful addition of a horn section.
Califone does visit their more traditionally rootsy side when so compelled, as on the lovely, fingerpicked gem “Sunday Noises” or the more atmospheric, white noise flecked “The Eye You Lost in the Crusades,” which builds a simple progression from buzzing steel string twang and segues into strange, electronic noises. This song, like many of the band’s others, is minimal in its structure, rather than its arrangement, bringing together a pool of contrasting sounds and textures while maintaining a relatively simple progression throughout. Songs like “Sunday Noises,” however, are the exception, one of few tracks in which a verse-chorus lineation applies, as it also does in “A Chinese Actor,” a fuzzy, noisy rocker with handclaps, a danceable drum machine breakdown, squalls of feedback and even a catchy chorus. Though on the surface, it’s a fairly straightforward rock song, what makes it uniquely Califone’s is the detail that goes into it, each obscure random note, each haunting background noise, and each rhythmic aberration.
A cover finds its way into Califone’s routine in this outing, namely Psychic TV’s “The Orchids,” which is made twinkling and gorgeous in its brilliant interpretation. Hip-hop beats and Rutili’s a cappella vocals open the bastardized blues of “Black Metal Valentine,” a bassy, hard-grooving, six minute creature lurking deep within the album’s second half. With the amount of restraint involved here, that attention to detail becomes all the more crucial, squeaks fluttering in and samples of brief melody fading in and out, yet the halfway point brings about a lengthy, melodic, guitar-driven bridge. “3 Legged Animals” stands as the album’s true melodic climax, crashes of guitar intertwining with gentle plinks of a piano and Rutili’s rasp at the front of it all, while what is most likely a harmonium, perhaps an accordion, chimes in during the chorus for a fuller, organic sound.
There may or may not be a precise answer to the riddle above, but I’m going out on a limb and saying “yes.” While Califone are far from traditionalists, and are making more adventurous music than any other artist tied to “roots” music, they are doing so while still incorporating elements of their old-timey musical forefathers. Whether in extra terrestrial territory or grounded on terra firma, Roots & Crowns reminds one, yet again, that Califone is truly an American treasure.
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.