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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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).
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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