Red Red Meat and Califone


(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Red Red Meat, 7/10
Jimmy Wine Majestic, 6.5/10
Bunny Gets Paid, 7/10
There's A Star Above The Manger Tonight, 8/10
Loftus, 6.5/10
Califone: Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People , 7.5/10 (comp)
Califone: Roomsound , 7/10
oRSo , 6/10
oRSo: Long Time By , 6/10
Sin Ropas: Three Cherries , 7/10
Sin Ropas: Trickboxes On the Pony Line (2003), 5/10
Sin Ropas: Fire Prizes (2005), 5/10
Califone: Deceleration One , 5/10
Califone: Quicksand Cradlesnakes , 6.5/10
Califone: Heron King Blues (2004), 7/10
Orso: My Dreams Are Back And Better Than Ever (2004), 6.5/10
Califone: Roots & Crowns (2006) , 6/10
Califone: All My Friends Are Funeral Singers (2009), 4.5/10
Links:

Tim Rutili e Glenn Girard erano gli animatori dei Friends Of Betty prima di dar vita (nel 1990) ai Red Red Meat. Fra i gruppi di Chicago erano gia' un'anomalia, in quanto tentavano un'improbabile "ponte" fra il moderno grunge e l'atavico blues di quelle parti. La formula riusci' nei primi singoli, tanto Hot Nickety Trunk Monkey (Perishable, 1991), doppiata dal blues del Delta per chitarra slide Molly's On The Rag, quanto Snowball (Dead Bird, 1992), con il non meno valido retro Idaho Durt, due brani che aggiunsero al formato-base anche un uso sapido del fuzz.

A definire una volta per tutte quell'originale "grunge-blues" fu l'album omonimo del 1992 (per la Perishable). Conteso fra la spigolosita' di Robo Sleep (Velvet Underground e MC5) e la cantabilita' di Snowball (Husker Du e Lynyrd Skynyrd), fra il ritualismo perverso di Grief Giver (Cramps e Rolling Stones) e le semovenze funky di Hot Nikketty Trunk Monkey (Jimi Hendrix e Aerosmith), il gruppo e' un'inesauribile macchina di vibrazioni. Il disco caracolla fra numeri spettacolari come il febbrile delirio acustico di Molly's On The Rag e il boogie sgangherato di X-Diamond Cutter Blues per immergersi in due lunghi brani mozzafiato di natura psichedelica: l'incubo di Sister Flossy, degno dei Grateful Dead piu' "oscuri", e la trance di Rubbing Mirrors, fatta sanguinare dagli scampanellii stordenti delle chitarre.
Sono in effetti soprattutto le chitarre a farla da padrone, con i loro interventi sempre personalissimi, al limite delle convenzioni del blues, del boogie, dell'hardrock, e quasi sempre spinte da forze malvagie in contrappunti tanto rozzi quanto incandescenti.

La maturita' venne segnalata dal singolo con Flank, una delle loro ballate da saloon piu' distorte, vibranti e melodiche, e Lather, la cui melodia si snoda sul rombo ossessivo delle distorsioni facendo leva su tempi rallentati e accordi psichedelici.

Ripresisi dalla morte del bassista Glynnis Johnson (per AIDS nel 1992), i Red Red Meat pubblicano Jimmy Wine Majestic (SubPop, 1993), ancor piu' equilibrato nelle sue pulsioni innovative e tradizionali.
Questa volta l'ispirazione e' apertamente blues, e blues di quello sciatto, alla Exile On Main Street, secondo d'altronde la stessa intuizione che e' stata dei Pussy Galore. Gli shuffle trasandati di Thruster e Smokey Mountain Dbl Dip ne sono il felice risultato. I Red Red Meat vanno oltre in quanto si fanno spesso prendere la mano e finiscono per trasformare quegli pseudo-blues in sequenze paradossali di strimpelli e di botte da far invidia a Captain Beefheart, come in Dowser. Ma questi blues, prima ancora che essere primitivi, sono sfumati da sonorita' chiaramente "acide", da coacervi di accordi fluttuanti nel nulla che danno luogo all'improvviso a "scoppi" di riff e nenie trasognate (Stained And Lit e Roses su tutte).
I Red Red Meat riscoprono le armonie "dilatate" e allucinate dei Meat Puppets (canto, chitarre e ritmi uniti in maniera approssimativa e lasciati nuotare in laghi di distorsioni o di fuzztone) in brani come Gorshin e Moon Calf Tripe; fino a raggiungere stati trascendenti che si esprimono nelle cantilene dimesse, quasi folk di Brain Dead e ancor piu' Comes. Soltanto la galvanica Cilla Mange sfodera gli artigli di Flank. Nel complesso l'operazione dei Red Red Meat e' una delle innovazioni piu' significative apportate negli anni '90 al canone del bluesrock.

Due accordi blues strascicati dalla chitarra aprono la lunga agonia di Carpet Of Horses: non capita molto di piu' per sei minuti. Gran parte del terzo disco dei Red Red Meat, Bunny Gets Paid (SubPop, 1995), e' giocato su queste sonorita' minimali e un po' grigie, in una sequenza di motivi malinconici da pub cantati e suonati praticamente da solo (Buttered, There's Always Tomorrow, Variations On Nadia's Theme) con una svogliatezza narcolettica da far invidia ai Codeine. A lungo andare resta troppo poco da raccontare, ma quel poco e' sublime. Capolavoro e' forse Rosewood Wax Voltz + Glitter, una danza tribale al limite del voodoobilly che e' immersa nel piu' bieco chiasso industriale e raggiunge livelli mica male di demenzialita'. Altro momento di follia e' Sad Cadillac, con la grancassa a battere un tempo improbabile e due ubriachi che canticchiano sulle stecche della chitarra e su rumorini di pianoforte. Ci sono soltanto due momenti di normalita', con la nenia psichedelica di Chain Chain Chain che finalmente ha un ritmo (seppur trasandato come da manuale Stones e Lou Reed), e la rude ballata dell'Idiot Son. Il chitarrista Girard non c'e' piu' e Rutili ha modo di scorrazzare. Album forse piu' psichedelico dei precedenti, sorprende nel modo in cui stana ritornelli angelici (Gauze e Oxtail) dalle armonie piu' caotiche e disgregate. Squilibrato fino al fondo scala lisergico il Taxidermy Blues In Reverse. L'album e` al tempo stesso il piu` atmosferico e il piu` melodico del lotto. A modo suo, raccorda il blues-rock e l'art-rock.

A parte l'album d'esordio, che in retrospettiva non metteva a fuoco correttamente la loro vocazione, la parabola dei Red Red Meat da Jimmy Wine Majestic a Bunny Gets Paid e` quella di un'evoluzione coerente da Exile On Main Street a Captain Beefheart, dai Pussy Galore a Jon Spencer.

Continuando nella vena sperimentale di Bunny, il quarto album, There's A Star Above The Manger Tonight (SubPop, 1997), segna la conquista di una classicistica maturita`, sottolineata anche dal fatto che i brani tendono a essere piu` strumentali che cantati. Il loro blues-rock sgangherato sembra improvvisamente un sound di cantate barocche. Dietro l'apparente trasandatezza con cui si accavallano gli accordi piu` bislacchi si nasconde infatti una logica ferrea e una smaliziata abilita` di performer. Il quartetto ha forse trovato anche l'equilibrio magico, con Tim Rutili divenuto ormai un polistrumentista che si alterna a chitarra, piano, mandolino, organo e violino, un prezioso Tim Hurley al basso che lo contrappunta validamente con i suoi tocchi infernali, un Brian Deck al sintetizzatore che e` la vera sorpresa del disco, capace di affrescare le atmosfere piu` torbide, oniriche, eroinomani, e un Ben Massarella alle percussioni impeccabile nel suo picchiettare in lontananza, ora aborigeno di giungla ora Charlie Watts al nadir della sua sciatteria. All'estremo piu` accessibile del loro stile si situano Sulfer, con graffianti stecche-riff, un'atmosfera da cocktail lounge e un minimo di ritornello soul (ma anche con una superba coda di fantasmagorici effetti chitarristici), Chinese Balls, con un piglio roccioso a meta` strada fra Stones e ZZ Top, Quarter Horses, una ballata per pellerossa bruciati dal sole del deserto, e Airstream Driver, una nenia sonnolenta a passo di Velvet Underground. Nella title-track, in Second Hand Sea, in Bury Me, ovvero con i brevi intermezzi che servono a spezzare la tensione, affondano le unghie nella tradizione popolare per scodellare scherzi giulivi degni di Taj Mahal.
La passione per i cerimoniali occulti e la propensione per rievocare il senso di mistero delle civilta` pagane culminano nelle lente danze rituali voodoo di All Tied e nei sei minuti di magie di percussioni di Paul Pachal, un incubo di giungle rannicchiato dentro un incubo di allucinogeni.
Si affermano come i piu` grandi discepoli di Captain Beefheart di sempre con una maldestra incursione nelle paludi della Louisiana, la comica fantasia strumentale di Just Like An Egg On Stilts, al massimo della disgregazione dell'armonia, quando la melodia e` soltanto un accumulo disordinato di accordi piu` o meno stonati. Diciassette minuti di fastidiosissima trance.
Il fatto saliente e` decisamente la fantasia degli arrangiamenti, nei quali convergono le idee di quattro geni della rivisitazione postmodernista. Dall'alto di un repertorio sconfinato di tecniche chitarristiche, di una rivoluzionaria reinterpretazione del ruolo delle percussioni per aumentarne la comunicativa, e di un'arte della fuga dissonante del sintetizzatore (in sintonia con la riscoperta dello strumento ad opera di Magnog, Cul De Sac, etc) il gruppo conia una grammatica altamente espressiva del flusso di coscienza.
Maestri della tecnica postmodernista di decostruzione degli stili, i Red Red Meat hanno usato il blues come rampa di lancio per entrare in un'orbita da cui tutta la musica popolare appare come uno sfocato mare di suoni.

Chicago's Red Red Meat started from similar premises but evolved towards a more intellectual exploration of music. Red Red Meat (1992) and Jimmy Wine Majestic (1993) unleashed the dirty, feverish and unstable vibrations of all the blues irregulars of the past (the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart, Pussy Galore, etc), but the atmospheric Bunny Gets Paid (1995) veered towards desolate free-form "pieces" that felt like scarred remnants of pop songs. This, in turn, led to the abstract framework of There's A Star Above The Manger Tonight (1997), replete with synthesizer and other sophisticated arrangements, which was, de facto, a postmodernist exercise in stylistic deconstruction, bordering on trip-hop and ambient music while retaining the cacophony of Captain Beefheart and Pussy Galore.

Red Red Meat guitarist (and original founder) Tim Rutili, drummer Ben Massarella and bassist Tim Hurley set out to further investigate this unfocused sea of sounds as Califone. The brooding acid-blues sound of their Roomsound (2001) and Quicksand Cradlesnakes (2003) absorbed jazz, post-rock, samples and loops into the canon of blues depression and gospel ecstasy. Heron King Blues (2004) further disintegrated the format of the roots-rock song, with the mostly instrumental jam Heron King Blues performing a bold balancing act between organic free-form abstraction and geometric pulsing pattern, a worthy addition to the program of Captain Beefheart's Mirror Man.


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Loftus (Perishable, 1997) is a collaboration between Red Red Meat and Rex, a collection of lo-fi spirituals (Emma's Rubber Leg), hallucinogenic, catatonic blues (Haywine), surreal country music (Theme From Loftus Nine), and robotic jams (Nervous). The coupling of Rex's math-rock neurosis and Red Red Meat's acid-blues depression yields some seriously challenging music.

After Red Red Meat disbanded, Tim Rutili, Ben Massarella and Tim Hurley returned under the moniker Califone. The seven songs on the mini-album Califone (Flydaddy, 1998) continue There's A Star's experiments towards a trip-hop sound while retaining Red Red Meat's roots in black music. Califone's artistic manifesto is On The Steeple, a hyper-psychedelic dub-infected blues enhanced with discordant piano figures, guitar reverbs and swampy percussions. Unlike most trip-hop, that employs high-tech studio techniques, Califone's songs are orchestrated in the name of deranged primitivism: found noises, casual guitar/piano tones, oblique interplay, unorthodox drumming. The country spoof Dime Fangs sounds like a slow-motion version of the Holy Modal Rounders. Down Eisenhower Sun Up updates the West-coast acid-rock sound of the Sixties (would fit on David Crosby's first album). What is notably different, besides the technique, is the icy, gloomy atmosphere. Even the relatively simple folk lullaby Silvermine Pictures seems to be performed by a bunch of vampyres.. Pastry Sharp is a quiet John Lennon-esque ballad drowned in a jelly of slow, dissonant rhythmic elements. Red Red Meat's visceral approach to popular music is replaced in Califone's music by textural arrangements of electronics, statics, found noises, keyboards. Red Red Meat music used to be the quintessence of spontaneity: Califone's music is as artificial as it gets, all processing and reprocessing of sonic ideas.
Their mastery in welding the synthetic and the traditional shines on the subsequent EP Califone (Road Cone, 2000). Electric Fence uses the elements of the previous album (the blues backwash, the dub ambience, the neurotic piano figures, the sound effects), plus a touch of strings, to manufacture a full-fledged romantic ballad, in many ways reminiscent of the decadent mood concocted by Roxy Music. Beneath The Yachtsman bridges tradition (country/folk/blues), psychedelia and trip-hop and perfectly defines their semi-dissonant roots-rock. Dock Boggs, shrouded in dance beats and hazy distortions, offers an ever more unlikely hybrid of the archaic and the futuristic. The EP contains two straightforward acoustic numbers as well: St Martha Let It Fold and Don't Let Me Die Nervous; as if to remember where it all started.
Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People (Glitterhouse, 2000) collects the two EPs.

Rick Rizzo and Doug McCombs of Eleventh Dream Day guest on Roomsound (Perishable, 2001 - Thrill Jockey, 2006), Califone's first proper full-length. Tim Rutili finds a superb balance between his rootsy inspirations (blues depression and gospel ecstasy) and modern technology (samples and loops). The rhythm section of Ben Massarella and Tim Hurley grace each track of countless diversions. On the surface, the album is a collection of melancholy, dreamy ballads, but the deeper one digs, the "louder" (so to say) one hears echoes of Calexico's subdued "desert folk". Either way, songs such as Trout Silk (sub-blues groaning to drowse even Taj Mahal, free-form acid guitar, and a magma of lazy sounds) and Tayzee Nub (a nocturnal Tom Waits humming along a bunch of sleeping musicians) are complex, sophisticated compositions. Rutili's stream-of-consciousness poetry complements the spacey scores.
As usual, Califone's sound has two side effects. On one hand, it resonates with the laid-back, dilated, western acid-rock of the Sixties (St Augustine). On the other hand, the marriage of dreary blues and acid melancholy yields dirges such as Bottles And Bones, Slow Rt Hand and the fantastic plantation spiritual Wade In The Water that recall Beggar's Banquet-era Rolling Stones.
The album includes another "simple" lullaby, Rattlesnakes Smell Like Split Cucumbers, and a ten-minute meditation, New Black Tooth.
While not as accomplished and innovative as the two EPs, Roomsound offers plenty of depressed vibrations.

Deceleration One (Perishable, 2002) collects music for films that was performed live by Califone.

Orso is the project of former Red Red Meat bassist Phil Spirito (who is also in Rex), now converted to banjo and acoustic guitar. His former Red Red Meat buddies and violinist Julie Liu help out on oRSo (Perishable, 1998), a charming collection of humble folk and blues songs, dressed with found, toy and home-made instruments, played and sung with the off-kilter manners of Tom Waits (Burial At Sea, Three Chimneys All Different, Fireman's Cough), with occasional nods to Bob Dylan and Neil Young (For Lack Of Better Words). In a couple of cases Spirito attempts a bold form of "avant-folk" (the Captain Beefheart and Holy Modal Rounders romp of Stretch Your Money, the nonsensical rigmarole of Madagascar), that prove more than a passing form of folly.
But the insane orchestration is better appreciated in the instrumental (or mostly instrumental) pieces. Farmer Was A Paranoid Man and Tea Eggs are abstract art, psychedelic freak-outs in the vein of Red Crayola with discrete doses of "musique concrete". Less radical scores yield the surreal vignettes of Rudra Vina, Spider's House, Bubble Lady.
The sounds on Orso's second album, Long Time By (Perishable, 2000) are no less inventive. Almost no song is left to predictable devices, almost every tune is embedded in randomness and chaos. The variety of instruments turns fairy tales such as Mavis into small chamber pieces that retain a surreal character while sculpting a depressed mood. Tom Waits' influence is even stronger, as attested by the drunk and sleepy Third and MaMa. On the other hand, Spirito's primitivism in deranged pseudo-folk number such as Alex Apartment hark back to the era of Holy Modal Rounders and David Peel.
The real treat, truth be told, are the instrumentals, veritable chamber concertos of mad dissonances (Conference Room, Slight Return, Logs), when not delightful, out-of-tune flashbacks (Spokane). We get so used to the whackiness of the project that the almost accomplished pop-iness of Well comes as a shock.

Tim Hurley, drummer Danni Iosello and bassist Noel Kupersmith are Sin Ropas, whose Three Cherries (Perishable, 2000) is one of the most gloriously deranged folk-rock albums of the decade, from the drunk, spaced-out country-rock of Rabbit Dreams to the highly original folksinging of Redtooth (Neil Young with a bad hangover), songs that relish in sleepy tempos and huge doses of melancholy. From the burning guitar distortion of Little Cheater to the abstract cacophony of I Found Your Teeth, from the pop refrain of Tender Facial Rake to the solemn, tender whisper of Tripped On Your Cape, Rutili is magnificent in the way he sinks his mind in every note, in the way his music seems to be falling apart at every verse. As he proceeds in uncharted terrain, the artist is trying to figure out whether he is Alice In Wonderland sliding down the hole, Ulysses adrift in the seastorm, or Ted Bundy stalking his next victim.

Tim Hurley and Danni Iosello continued the Sin Ropas project with Trickboxes On the Pony Line (Sad Robot, 2003) and Fire Prizes (Konkurrent, 2005 - Shrug, 2008).

Califone's Quicksand / Cradlesnakes (Thrill Jockey, 2003) enhances the brooding acid-blues sound of the first album with electronic, jazz and post-rock elements. Surprisingly this results in both an expanded song structure (the seven-minute carnival of eccentricities that flows along the piano elegy Horoscopic Amputation Honey and helps propel its jubilant finale) and a warmer, more melodic approach (best represented by Michigan Girls, a tender lullaby embedded in a soundscape of wooden plucking, limping percussion, plaintive strings and shy guitar riffs; and by Red, a swampy, ghostly blues that whispers a tender tune against a spare background of lazy wooden percussion and random instrumental sounds). Califone still retains the penchant of a roots band (the brief folk ballad Million Dollar Funeral, the brittle boogie Your Golden Ass, the acid bluegrass Mean Little Seed) and a roots band that aims at telling stories (the nocturnal and actually poppy Vampiring Again, the Lou Reed-ian When Leon Sphinx Moved Into Town). However, Rutili's operation has become more ambitious, as proven by the madness of the short instrumental intermezzos, notably Cat Eats Coyote.

Acceleration One (Perishable, 2002) and Deceleration Two (Perishable, 2003) are movie soundtracks composed by Califone.

Califone's Heron King Blues (Thill Jockey, 2004) is another intriguing manifestation of Tim Rutili's continuing experiment, further disintegrating the format of the roots-rock song. Some of the shorter songs mix discrete doses of funk music and soul music with Califone's atmospherics (like an acid version of Little Feat), peaking with the mutant disco of Two Sisters Drunk on Each Other and the electronic and percussive, largely free-form Trick Bird. Apple injects blues guitars and gospel organs into a stew of electronic beats and noises. But then the plain Wingbone and Lion and Bee are just the opposite: heartfelt, tiptoeing folk vignettes. The eight-minute spaced-out and distorted Sawtooth Sung a Cheater's Song retains the funereal oneiric gloom of previous albums, pushing further into the other dimension. Everything sounds as filler compared with the 15-minutes mostly instrumental jam Heron King Blves, a balancing act between organic free-form abstraction and geometric pulsing pattern, a worthy addition to the program of Captain Beefheart's Mirror Man.
The dusty interplay and solos of voice, guitars, banjos, hurdy gurdies, drums and electronics concocts the usual understated post-everything mayhem.

Orso's My Dreams Are Back And Better Than Ever (Perishable, 2004) redefines Spirito's project as languid chamber prog-folk-pop-jazz fusion reminiscent of Caravan. The repertory consists of simple fluffy songs that are tenderly arranged (Carlo Cennamo on alto sax, Griffin Rodriguez on double bass, Julie Liu on viola and violin) and delivered in a warm tone, best being Blind Date, Hartz of Darkness, Loaded for Bear (that echoes Faust's Jennifer), Is Christmas Tomorrow and the instrumental Oh Look Singing I Can Watch This.

Califone emerged as mature songwriters on Roots & Crowns (Thrill Jockey, 2006), an album that reconnected them to their roots-rock origins, recycling elements of blues, folk and country with the erudite nonchalance of a foreign scholar. Being as detached as they are from the populist artists that they (indirectly) quote, Califone can rearrange the semiotics of roots-rock according to their own aesthetic. The songs are pretty but not the way a Midwesterner would expect them to be. They display the urban anxiety that made Red Red Meat so provocative. Brian Deck continues to be the man behind the deranged sonic magic of Pink and Sour (subtly African and funky), A Chinese Actor (a deranged boogie full of noise, and perhaps the album's standout), the six-minute Black Metal Valentine (a syncopated, swampy shuffle), i.e. the three best songs, plus Spider's House (a sort of deconstruction of baroque pop), while Rutili's voice dominates the tender lullaby Orchids and the spaced-out elegy Burned By The Christians. Overall this is a much more radio-friendly version of Califone. Alas, it also has a greater percentage of filler than any of their previous albums. Nonetheless, Brian Deck and Tim Rutili stand as a unique creative couple, which has reinvented roots-rock in the digital age. The closing If You Would is a nocturnal, moribund lament over an anemic piano figure, in the vein of Tom Waits but without the attitude, and ended by a deluge of strings and synths. It symbolizes how far their partnership has gone and where it may be headed.

Orso released Ask Your Neighbor (2008).

Califone's All My Friends Are Funeral Singers (Dead Oceans, 2009) was actually Tim Rutili's first film soundtrack (and also his first film), which marked a nadir in Rutili's transfiguration of traditional North American music. Despite Giving Away The Bride, that sounds like a dub, jazz and Afro-pop remix of an ancestral plantation chant, and Salt, that could be a Taj Mahal invention, this is Rutili's "whitest" album, much more influenced by country and folk music than by blues music. At their best the songs evoke some kind of alternative cabaret (the fossilized Caribbean lullaby 1928, the surreal dance novelty Ape-Like), but mostly they are rather plain and uneventful, with little of the creative madness of the past.

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