All My Friends Are Funeral Singers
(Dead Oceans; 2009)
By Chet Betz | 4 November 2009
Same old, same old. Califone have come to give us more, yes, Califone. The lurching, broken bass rhythm and ephemera effects of opener “Giving Away the Bride” immediately shoot us into Heron King Blues (2004) territory. “1928,” naturally, is swathes of manipulated sound circling around a degrading acoustic loop—an awesome trick last heard on, hey, Califone’s awesome last record (“Rose Petal Ear”). The title “Polish Girls” reminds me of the title “Michigan Girls.” We have experienced this record before because we have experienced Califone before, and Califone is an entity that can only dream the dreams of its past. However, each time the dreaming happens…there are the slightest yet most bracing of changes in the details. Halfway into “Giving Away the Bride” the expected industrial noise vs. canned percussion duet (expected for Califone, that is) is transplanted with a backwards cymbal and a dramatic downward melodic line that quickly relents to, what the hell, pretty piano chords. If I’d actually heard such an open-handed gesture during the dirtier, skronkier moments of Heron King Blues it’d probably have given me a jolt; here I’ve been a little more prepared by the versatile grandeur of Roots & Crowns (2006). “1928” is working on a scope that “Rose Petal Ear” never dared imagine, those trills and plinks and plops, that static, the whispers of brass and string not just circling the central loop but circling like quiet vultures. They threaten to pick apart the song’s core, see. And “Polish Girls” sounds nothing like “Michigan Girls.”
I mean, if Califone didn’t exist I would be shocked to hear an Appalachian barn-burner about a Spanish surrealist filmmaker. But Califone does exist and so, of course, does “Buñuel.” But when Tim Rutili sings about how Luis “made bullets and guns at home to pass the time away,” you can hear how cool Tim thinks that is. You can practically hear, like, affection in Tim’s worn voice. And that feels like a first. I haven’t yet seen Rutili’s film to which this album is the soundtrack but Buñuel’s influence can be found quite readily in the trailer. Hey, wait, it’s a movie soundtrack! That’s new, right? Just kidding, remember Decelerations One and Two (2002). Califone’s always been heavily involved with art film and I still haven’t found a way to collate my thoughts on how art film has impacted the form and shape of Califone’s music—just another way that Califone stays the same while staying incredibly interesting. All My Friends Are Funeral Singers the film, though, is the first feature-film-kind-of-film that the band has accompanied, and just as it represents a more conventional narrative than Brent Green’s short Francis so, too, does this album fit right in with all the full-grown LPs of the band’s discography; the blatant score bits are tidied down to the three tracks with the awkward titles. Oh, and in a couple spots (most obviously on “Funeral Singers”) there seem to be dialogue clips from the film—like “Secret Garden” from Jerry Maguire except artsier!
If Califone’s latest has any issues it’s how those instrumentals somewhat choppily break up the album and then the sequencing that leads to a bit of a mid-album lull, one which reaches its most plodding with the unsatisfying and even somewhat shrill progression of “Evidence”; the only revelation in the mantra of “the evidence racks the memory again” is that this shit should be playing on Cold Case. But right when I’m starting to think I’m getting bored—something that has never happened to me during any of Califone’s other records—the band delivers two of their finest songs to date. “Krill” begins understated with fairly nondescript strumming and, what the hell, pretty piano chords that then show their breadth as they thrill ever so slightly with marimba arpeggios and tremble under the slow-burn guitar line at the chorus that leaks radiation on everything. The lead vocal works a low drawl a bit different from anything I’ve heard from Califone before, providing a nice contrast when Rutili comes in at a higher register and fills in the blanks in the melody with channel-panning runs. Frankly, this is amazing stuff. And it only gets better with perhaps the best album closer Califone’s done to date; the first two-thirds of “Better Angels” could stand as one of the better (if too familiar) traditional tracks in the band’s oeuvre—bearing more than a passing resemblance to “Mean Little Seed” from the seminal Quicksand/Cradlesnakes (2003)—but there’s a hint close to the two-minute mark, a steel drum solo quickly smudged into distorted signal then cut off, that an epiphany is close at hand. The coda takes the roots progression, one that has permeated Califone’s body of work and is at the root of their art, so to speak, and right there in the song provides the transition to the transcendence that is Califone’s ware, resolving the progression into something both more emphatic and yet more zen, a thumping backbeat stuttering to life with a Rutili falsetto and layers of vibrant chiffon shifting on top. You know, if chiffon were made from bleeding star skin.
It’s an idyllic last breath that re-affirms the signature importance of Califone being Califone. They are doing the same thing they always do, which entails gorgeous and gracefully surprising variations on a deeply resonant motif. That motif is Americana as experimental as pop music; they are making the old things new. And that, time and time again, makes for a brilliant experience in the hands of these master craftsmen.