March 4, 2004

Electron Blues

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For Califone, time unfolds on a grander scale. The band unabashedly allows their compositions to dawdle, at times savoring a gentle acoustic refrain or standing mesmerized by delicately sequenced percussion. It’s a sonic landscape devoid of quick and easy climaxes, instead devoted to deliberate lingering. Each song shrouds itself in a gradually overwhelming macabre of diverse musical timbres. Just as deftly as the songs’ textures thicken and rise, the dense sounds simply disperse. This is the art of Califone’s Heron King Blues; the music seems to come and go on its own terms.

Previous efforts from Califone have demonstrated a similar propensity for unusual textures. With their jangling, pulsing, and ringing rhythms, the band continually searches for ways to enrich its core folksy-blues sound. As much as their last release, Quicksand/Cradlesnakes, represents a culmination of the band’s mingling of traditional blues with varied instrumentation and progressive electronic techniques (loops, sequences, etc.), Heron King Blues takes the most abstract moments of Quicksand and dwells on them. In some ways, Heron King is an extended meditation on the seven-minute epic “Horoscopic.Amupation.Honey” in addition to the brief, experimental interludes on Quicksand.

The songs of Heron King, like the aforementioned Quicksand track, paradoxically capture a simultaneously sparse and thick sound. Despite the high-density of musical events — electronic fills, organ elaborations, and guitar flutters — Califone retains a stripped down aesthetic. Only at well-timed moments does the woven texture explode in multilayered bouts.

“Trick Bird” provides one of the primary examples of this particular Califone phenomenon. The track begins with a softly repeating electronic drum line, which is soon complicated by a sputtering guitar, plucked violin, and the breathy vocals of founder Tim Rutili. As the song progresses, more rhythmic loops are added as well as an increasing number of instruments, and the batter thickens but with each ingredient holding its integrity. Finally, after rising and falling a number of times, “Trick Bird” suddenly but not surprisingly combusts when all of the parts clamor in unison.

The album’s title track functions similarly but on a larger scale. It’s a fifteen-minute opus replete with jagged blues riffs in addition to the layered but spacious ambiance. By its end, “Heron King Blues ” has cycled through a complex set of movements, characterized by an insatiable combination of steel drum, slide bass, and touches of banjo.

While most of Califone’s tracks follow the trajectory of “Trick Bird” and “Heron King Blues,” “2 Sisters Drunk on Each Other” takes a path of its own. A slinky funk number, the song evokes the collaboration of David Byrne and Brian Eno, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. A simple drum machine stomps off, as slap bass, horns, guitar loops, and over-dubbed vocals are added together with an emphasis on each part punctuating another. For most of its duration, the song seems to be lurking, but once it gains enough momentum to reach its superfly funk strut, the track hits its high and fades away as mischievously as it came.

Califone has created an album full of contradictions. It is at once subtle and overwhelming, antiquated and futuristic. These contrary qualities unfold on a masterful timetable aimed to make room for all the paradoxes. And like all worthy records, eventually it simply stops making sense.

Archived article by Andrew Gilman