April 3, 2003

Test Spin: Califone

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In an odd way, the disturbed avant-animation of Francis (a short film appended to this disc) is a perfect introduction to Califone’s world, where meaning is gleaned from absurdity and beauty lurks in shadows. Likewise, Quicksand/ Cradlesnakes is a bit hard to grasp. Many critics have praised the band’s eccentricity, but fail to comprehend the masterful integration of disparate influences, throwing around misnomers like “post-rock” and even “IDM,” which have no relevance here. Rutili and co. craft folk songs, with the same intrigue and urgency heard on Harry Smith’s American Anthology. Laptops and electronic effects are employed only to add to this mystery, blanketing the largely acoustic instrumentation in waves of ambient textures.

Producer Brain Deck’s absence is immediately felt. (Deck played a large role on the band’s debut, Roomsound, as well as the recent Ugly Casanova recent release.) His kitchen-sink percussion is somewhat missed, but much of his raw aesthetic remains. The opening “One” is a perfect example, with its wandering loops and electronic flourishes setting an unsettling mood as it leads into the haunting “Horoscopic.Amputation.Honey.” New members Jim Becker and Joe Adamik contribute much of the album’s old-timey feel, toting among them mandolins, fiddles, organs, horns, banjos, and even something called a duct tape coin piano. Rutili’s whiskey-soured voice is one of the most affecting in any genre, especially given his enigmatic lyricism (“Straw bones nails of November clay/ the way you kiss your uncle on the mouth”). The eclectic and sparse instrumentation on songs like “(Red)” and “Michigan Girls” opens a door onto this peculiar plane, leaving room for the listener to explore the distinct and often contrastive timbres, as well as the murky landscapes and strained relationships painted by Rutili’s streams of subconsciousness. “Million Dollar Funeral” and “Mean Little Seed” feature little more than Becker’s fiddle alongside Rutili’s acoustic guitar and idiosyncratic musings. All in all, Quicksand … is a remarkable document of sonic experimentation, as affirming as it is puzzling.

Archived article by Ben Kupstas