Roots and Crowns

(Thrill Jockey; 2006)

By Chet Betz | 6 October 2006

In the ninth chapter of Robertson Davies’ 1981 novel The Rebel Angels, a codger-philosopher named Parlabane is putting forth his theories on self-actualization to Maria Theotoky, a dedicated university student who has been attempting to distance herself from her part-Gypsy heritage by immersing herself in intellectual pursuits. Parlabane makes analogy to the root system of a tree, explaining the dependence of the tree’s crown on its inversion, the buried shadow reflection that sustains all growth and flourish. “But the root does not go back to those old stuffed shirts with white wigs whose portraits people display so proudly, but to our unseen depths — which means the messy stuff of life from which the real creation and achievement takes its nourishment.” His concluding comment to Maria: “I think you are trying to suppress [your Gypsy blood] because it is the opposite of what you are trying to be — the modern woman, the learned woman, the creature wholly of this age and this somewhat thin and sour civilization … You are trying to tear it out. But you can’t, you know. My advice to you, my dear, is to let your root feed your crown.” It’s another hundred pages before Maria pays heed, and in the end, it’s as if she never really had much of a choice, anyways. Califone, on the other hand, are a band founded on Parlabane’s proposition.

Tim Rutili, former Red Red Meat-er and Califone’s creative hub-mind, told the Chicago Reader what should be obvious to the CMG reader by now — that the title for Califone’s fourth studio LP was taken from The Rebel Angels (which, by the way, is somewhat stilted, dialogue-heavy, and unapologetically academic in its setting, but also a work of great spirit, humor, and wisdom). A literary reference as such, Roots & Crowns functions not only as the perfect title for this record, but also as a signet for Califone’s entire modus operandi. The band’s modern reconstruction of “roots” music, the last-century folk basins that pool into Americana, had its prototype in the Red Red Meat albums, and knew itself as soon as Rutili established Califone, as soon as the world was hit with those EPs and Roomsound (2001). The root fed the crown through great release after great release of rustica maligned and re-aligned, electronics breeding in the canvas whites between fiddle and banjo and thumb piano and piece-meal percussion, and now with Roots & Crowns, Califone have a retroactive statement of purpose. Rutili still sings bound stems of images, but the music does more than uphold the point — it encompasses and personifies it.

The root of Roots & Crowns needs little unearthing. At its base “Pink & Sour” is as plain as a chugging blues chord progression; “Sunday Noises,” “The Eye You Lost in the Crusades,” “Our Kitten Sees Ghosts” — hell, half the tracks — grow out of repetitive (albeit elegant) acoustic lines; “Alice Crawley” is half a minute of Grandpa Buck and Uncle Tom tapping their feet and chinning their strings before Ma rings the triangle. And Rutili sings with all the palpable emotion of his old forebears; it’s just that he sounds even, somehow, older. What his craw steals is the world-weariness that was by-product to the raging yowling of the blues men and the boxcar minstrels. To them, the tired cracks in their music were inescapable physical traits, resultant of harsh, Depressioned lives. Rutili’s voice comes from a position more educated and attended by amenity. His words are, at best, impressionistic. Perhaps his stream-of-consciousness verse reduces folk couplets to mere template for rhythmic vocal melody and transparent feeling; regardless, each isolated detail is evocative, and, strung together within the flow of Rutili’s singing, with its philosophical adherence to the exhaustion that comes after fervent struggle, they show an inlet towards the tree’s crown. It is but one inlet, though.

Because “Pink & Sour” may be a blues stomp, but it’s also a deconstruction of blues stomp; a controlled demolition of the tabs into herky-jerky percussion, awkward electric guitar phrases, and synth runs that grind tonal implications out into brash, explicit oscillations. When the apparitions appear in “Our Kitten Sees Ghosts,” they set off ethereal spinning plates eating up the background until the guitar has nowhere left to stand (a goosebump effect on the heels of Rutili’s “it’s almost surgical / the way you shatter / when you hit the water”). And on closer “If You Would,” Califone finally claim a pretty high stake for their more amorphous side, an estimable spot somewhere between their work to date and the spacious transcendentalism of Mark Hollis after he got the new wave out of his system. Talk Talk, though, was a sparse and shrewdly implemented symphony. Aided by the increasingly adroit production of Brian Deck, Califone arrive at their cutting, bleeding-edge beauty through a little KFW-esque manipulation, and with them it’s not just manipulation of sound, but manipulation of by-gone genre.

This is where the band most brilliantly blurs just what exactly is root and what is crown. As Keith Fullerton did on the first half of Multiples (2005), Califone use modern equipment to rake up the primordial muck of their music, be it with the synthetic note-mockery of “Pink & Sour,” the carefully damaged fidelity and stretched beyond recognition tape of “Rose Petal Ear,” or the washes that permeate the fabric of “3 Legged Animals” and “If You Would” — photographic blow-ups of the songs’ single cells, back-projected. Additionally, “sophisticated” musical approaches such as collage and noise evolve the roots here only insomuch as they also devolve them. “A Chinese Actor” runs its riff into squalls and distorted breakdowns, intermittent claps and a bright chorus doing what they can to keep things presentable. There’s a sing-along in “Black Metal Valentine” spit out the end of a boot-to-board beat given hip-hop emphasis; stereo-spanning fragments of instrumentation and experimentation scurry out and back in like a platoon in the process of forming a marching line. So that they can, in the end, march and sing along.

Even where it initially seems Califone are playing straight-faced convention, a few more listens expose the extent to which their root and crown have inextricably merged. The pretty picking of “Sunday Noises” is underpinned by sinking bass blurps, pointed percussive daps, and leaking air. In the middle of its strident strum “The Eye You Lost in the Crusades” foreshadows the gorgeous ruin that will eventually overtake it. Fiddles become atmosphere on “Burned by the Christians,” phantom warbles carrying fret echoes off into the smog. “Spider’s House” boasts of the band’s magnetic compositional talent, ordering into perfect pop mosaic a smattering of shiny bits, which are mortared by a horn arrangement that Jon Brion could only write in a dream. “The Orchids” sounds too wholly Califone to be a Psychic TV cover. Smack dab in the middle of all this distinguished synergy, the relatively quaint “Alice Crawley” becomes an uncomplicated, hearken-back reprieve between two sides full of utterly ingested anachronism and flux.

The album’s integrity has only one equal in 2006, and we dropped a 90% on that mind-blower last week. Whereas For Hero : For Fool pins its striking array of musical color to Dose’s text, Roots & Crowns offers music which is its own text. While Subtle are beginning to fulfill their potential in a way that’s fresh and exciting, Califone are continuing the progressive refinement of their roots, giving an assured argument for the possibilities ignored by folk musicians enslaved to tradition and a smart recall to all the forward-thinking others who have moved too completely and arrogantly on. In some ways, the two albums are both perfect counterparts and perfect counterpoints to each other. In every way, they are two of this year’s finest offerings. In the case of Roots & Crowns, we have a resounding ode to hereditary, cultural integration as contained within an exemplary how-to. And all Califone had to do was make the archetypal Califone album.