forestpunk

A Journal Of The Dark Arts

Alchemical Americana: Califone – Roots and Crowns (Thrill Jockey)

For their fourth proper full-length, Califone update their scrapmetal Harry Smith alchemical Americana with a bit of exotica, sparkle, and sheen. 

Califone Roots and Crowns album review

Califone are, to quote Grand Funk Railroad, an American band. Their scrappy, ramshackle take on American folk and blues automatically brings to mind Harry Smith‘s An Anthology of American Folk Music, but focuses on all of the “wrong” parts, the incidental noises, raw instrumentation and recording, and weird, idiosyncratic personality. Their music seems ripped straight from what Greil Marcus calls “The Old Weird America,” the bizarre, obscure, lo-fi world of Bob Dylan‘s Basement Tapes. It fulfills a similar function as Harry Partsch‘s hobo intellectualism and Harry Smith’s surreal animation, elevating American folk music to Fine Art. 

But this begs the question – what is it to be American? It’s a loaded and important question to ask, when it’s so often weaponized to justify nationalism and racism, as it has been in recent years. Are we only allowed Coca-Cola and apple pie, John Philips Sousa marches and Hollywood blockbusters? 

On their fourth proper full-length, and ninth album total, Chicago-by-way-of-Los-Angeles alt folk experimentalists Califone ask us to reconsider what it is to make American music, unearthing an alternate history of obscure sounds, from the trancy hillbilly mysticism of Angus Maclise to the avant-garde artrock of Danny Elfman’s Oingo Boingo. It’s not all Americana, either – Califone mine obscure sounds from all over the Earth and throughout time, from the loping, looping hand drums and swooning sitars of “Pink And Sour” and “A Chinese Actor,” to Irish-sounding catgut fiddle of “Alice Crawley” to the  European-style musique concrete of “The Eye You Lost In The Crusade.” 

Roots and Crowns‘ standout moment, and the origin of the album itself, is a cover of Psychic TV‘s “The Orchids.” It’s a good metaphor for the album itself, seemingly reinforced by the album title itself – great beauty can come from mud and blood and grit and dirt. It’s like it’s said in the Bible, “You shall know them by their fruits.” 

Califone bring some much-needed guts and grit to the too-often austere world of experimental music and avant-garde art. They bridge the gap between the guts, the head, and the heart. They achieve a similar act of psychic alchemy as Harry Smith himself, in the process, giving voice and legitimacy to folk music and culture. Not all wisdom comes from academia or “high culture,” which are too often the bastions of the uber-privileged. They give hope of elevating folk music – which, can read as “popular music” in the 21st Century – to Fine Art, while still retaining some rough edges. It also broadens the scope of what should be considered “American music.” 

 

American countercultures have always had a love affair with other countries and cultures, an appreciation of Eastern mysticism and music, African rhythms and melodies, Celtic lilt and Eastern European orthodoxy. While this conversation has gotten trickier and more nuanced, due to questions about cultural appropriation, i think it’s safe to say this hybridity is truer to the experience of a lot of Americans, especially if you happen to live in a city. It’s not uncommon to come across Indian Carnatic classical music, traditional Ethiopian tezetas, Mexican mariachi music, blending with contemporary hip-hop, pop music, electronica, and metal. And that might just be on the way to the corner store. 

It’s not uncommon to come across Indian Carnatic classical music, traditional Ethiopian tezetas, Mexican mariachi music, blending with contemporary hip-hop, pop music, electronica, and metal. And that might just be on the way to the corner store.

Even with the rough edges, Roots and Crowns was Califone’s cleanest and most well-produced record to date when it came out in 2006. Their earliest material felt like walking around inside an arthouse, avant-garde Czech stop motion film. Roots and Crowns is much cleaner, slicker, more like an artful indie movie like Rutilli’s own All My Friends are Funeral Singers, which was this album’s follow-up. Their music holds up just as well under the bright, bold light of scrutiny, proving once and for all they weren’t just a band of stylized freakniks. If anything, it offers greater appreciation of Califone’s quirks, the close-mic’ed bric-a-brac, the psychedelic post-production, and Rutilli’s bizarre poetic stream-of-consciousness confessional lyrics. 

Roots and Crowns is Califone at their finest and a good chance to begin exploring their work if you’re just discovering them. It’s a wonderful soundworld to get lost in, a psychopomp leading you into the subterranean realms of the American mythic subconsciousness. 

Roots and Crowns is available for download and purchase now through Califone’s bandcamp. 

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