Califone - Quicksand/Cradlesnakes + Heron King Blues

So how would you describe Califone's music?




Along with Domino, Matador and Drag City, Thrill Jockey must be one of the most consistent labels around. They have the peculiar knack of finding groups that make genre-defying music. Of course, if you're successful enough then you'll be handed out a label eventually – that was Tortoise's fate with the Post Rock tag. So how would you describe Califone's music?


Well, the very first track off quicksand/cradlesnakes Horoscopic.amputation.honey – will serve as a decent template for the kind of music they make. It opens with electronic chatter before suddenly giving way to a deceptively simple and rather charming piano-led song, complete with the subtle embellishments of guitar and mandolin. Then the electronic chatter returns; the song tries to reassert itself before finding itself hopelessly outgunned and the track ends in squalling white noise. In one song, then, there are aspects of country, rock, folk, electonica and avant-garde music. The next couple of tracks include a cello, a saxophone (that's blown but not exactly played), a bullfrog (I think) and someone falling down stairs (possibly). Your Golden Ass is almost a standard rock song until a steel drum solo interrupts it; When Leon Spinx Moved Into Town is a fairly normal track too, even if the boxer of the title turns out to be an analogy for the narrator's sex life. Mind you, the lyrics are pretty opaque at the best of times. 'Early minor Japanese pitcher sidearm slow tic / A wolfish mouth on a mouse-ish face lady from Shanghai third man.' 


None of the lyrics make any more sense than this and what is probably some kind of William Burroughs cut and paste action does become a little waring. Fortunately, Tim Rutili's husky, whispered vocals mean that he could be saying just about anything, which of course he is.


It would be easy to look through the instruments played on this album and to picture a tasteful county-rock album – there are cellos, fiddles, mandolins and pianos playing on most of the tracks. But Califone don't use these instruments to embellish rather simple and bland songs – instead they are intrinsic to the sounds that Califone wish to create, sounds that are cussedly weird, dark and require repeat playing.


There was probably a fairly 'normal' album lurking somewhere within quicksand/cradlesnakes but that isn't a charge you can level at the follow up, Heron King Blues. Here the sound is more organic, with the expert knob twiddling pushed to the background – in its place comes prepared piano and some wonderful clanking percussion. Maybe Califone were listening to John Cage and Harry Partch before they recorded this one. Wingbone kicks things off with just a banjo, a piano and a guitar. Rutili's voice is as strained and as weary as ever. The song could almost be traditional back porch music were it not for the fact that Califone never do the easy thing. As with the later track Lion and Bee, the song sounds as though it has just been born. Califone are prepared to cradle a song into life, to encourage its first faltering steps, but once it has enough strength and a sense of direction then they're happy to see it on its way. Trick Bird employs building site percussion along with a simple electronic beat, a violin and some scraping guitars.


Sawtooth Sung A Cheater's Song sounds like a good-ol-boy duelling banjo type song slowed down and then stripped apart. Apple features an Eno-esque backing track that dominates the proceedings until some traditional instruments finally begin to make an impression on the song. It is toward the end of the album that Califone really begin to start playing with the (admittedly loose) template they've created for themselves. 2 Sisters Drunk on Each Other starts off like an anaemic glam stomp with funky guitars and percussion from Speaking In Tongues era Talking Heads. Horns join in and the result could best be described as mogadon funk. The title track effectively sees out the remainder of the album – a sprawling fifteen-minute jam that is part funky, is part bluesy, and is certainly always on the brink of collapse.


Heron King Blues doesn't sound quite so immediate as its predecessor but it is, I think, a far more accomplished album. It is much more focussed and manages to sculpt some interesting new shapes from virtually all strands of 'traditional' American music.