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Published: 2006/10/24
by Randy Ray

Roots and Crowns – Califone

Thrill Jockey 163

There is a cool undercurrent of Brian Eno and David Byrne hanging out with Peter Gabriel at the crossroads of Califone’s new release. Perhaps that is too simplistic, as the melodic song structures also resemble Jeff Tweedy’s more subtle Yankee Hotel Foxtrot excursions, as well. These comments aren’t meant as easy answer rock crit comparisons. Indeed, if anything, the similarities are literary signposts rather than casual nods. Califone appears to create atmospheric portraits that hang on a loose wire of fading glory: down-and-outsiders that mirror sideshow freaksters from some hip sand castle.

“Pink & Sour” rolls along with an African pop pace mixed with a very cool and odd percussion mix before fading into “Spider’s House” which features loose acoustic strings, spoons, muted horns and lovely chorus. “Sunday Noises” follows with another beaut melody saddled next to wonderful ancient cowboy stroll. But the weirdness really kicks in when “The Eye You Lost in the Crusade” unfurls its tangled rhythms via various edits and sound blips before landing in the heavily danceable oddity called “A Chinese Actor”— four minutes plus of acoustic headbanging wedded with more cool sound effects, mojo snippets, subtle but vibrant percussion and yet another snappy chorus.

“Our Kitten Sees Ghosts” is perhaps a bit too much in the somnambulist milieu for my ears but doesn’t preclude a clever paranormal vibe. “Orchids” is also a tad too close to Beck’s more melancholic songs but, again, I prefer fuel with a little tangier octane. “Burned by the Christians” renders the soft-and-slow soundtrack balladry well. The edges remain jagged as the violin creeps in below the surface. “Black Metal Valentine” mutes the wayward pensive musings with the album’s quirkiest time signature (and best title) on a successful stretch of experimentationinfectious polyrhythms, percussion edits, electronic knob-twists and an effortless harmonic subtext. A tight but loose winner. “Rose Petal Earl” and “3 Legged Animals” echo the “Valentine”-brilliance with a late eve surrealistic pillow of archaic grace before segueing into another effective example of loopy exotica shimmering along the daydreamy portraitthe epic coda, “If You Would.”

Song fragments piece together and roll in clumps and morsels of matter and then fade away into the edit ether on Roots & Crowns. When they aren’t deconstructing molecular sound, Califone is building beautiful glimpses instead of the de rigueur hood wink cop out. Neither indie, jam, rock nor pop, Califone occupy a bit of studio terrain that requires careful brain/(third-)eye coordination. And that is quite commendable. This isn’t a static wallpaper design motif or easy listening Prozac rock for the morbidly inclined. Acoustic guitars rub up against backwards masking into ambient keyboardisms, fiddle mournings, lurid tape loops, water-drop-in-a-bucket percussion, angelic multi-tracked harmonies and a patiently majestic waltz through abstract imagery. What IT is ain’t exactly clear but one definitely feels the sonic tractor beam back towards these lush barely-awake cinematic dreams. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

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