Califone : Villagers

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Califone villagers review

Play “the habsburg jaw,” the first song on Villagers, to someone who’s never heard Califone before, and they’ll be a treated to a pretty solid microcosm of the group’s music since they formed over 25 years ago. A melodic, two-chord acoustic strum maintains a steady grounding amid a swirl of Morse code beeps, effects-warped vocal samples, backward-spun samples and all manner of curious shrieks and honks. Gliding above it all is the raspy gravitas of head surrealist Tim Rutili, whose wizened voice has carried a certain smoky authority to it for more than a quarter of a century. Their music isn’t a static thing, but it often forms a parallel orbital ellipse.

The story of Califone since 1997 has been one of constant change. Their progression has seen them transition from abstract folk to avant-funk jams, relocate from Chicago to Los Angeles, switch labels from Thrill Jockey to Dead Oceans to now Jealous Butcher, and undergo lineup shifts that eventually led to Califone more or less being a Rutili solo project—which here likewise features longtime collaborators Brian Deck, Michael Krassner, Rachel Blumberg, and Ben Massarella. Every Califone album is different than the one that preceded it, but Villagers is unmistakably a work of Rutili’s own making, rife with the earthy Americana and hypnotic sonic experimentation that set them apart from the beginning.

Much like the Califone catalog as a whole, Villagers is also rife with paradoxes and contradictions. It’s a richly layered record whose graceful arrangements land with a particular nuance, and a simple record that seems to continue building around its basic core elements with flashes of color and brilliance. Some of the best moments on the record leave room for subtle dazzle amid more generous applications of space, whether through the jazzy piano chords of “eyelash” or the gritty blues climaxes of “mcmansions.” More than a few of them even sound like the prettiest songs that Rutili’s ever written, like the smoky reinvention of Bacharach on standout “comedy.” Where a decade or two prior, wah-wah loops and curious feedback broadcasts might have defined their sound more definitively, here it’s the softer sounds that most often rise to the top, the squawks and bleeps phasing in as a matter of color rather than shape.

Where one can expect the aesthetics of Califone’s songs to ebb and flow, Rutili’s songwriting remains the strongest adhesive of all, keeping each disparate, sometimes immediate and occasionally subliminal piece from feeling disconnected from the whole. It’s on a song like “ox-eye” where every piece merely enhances the greater whole, with syrupy organ, woodwinds and raw, distorted guitar skronk all engaged in a riotously gorgeous choreography. Villagers isn’t necessarily the easiest entry point in Califone’s ever-unfolding body of work, but there’s a breezy approachability to it that makes it a friendly place to revisit often and marvel at how its canvas fills with mostly gentle strokes.

Label: Jealous Butcher

Year: 2023

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