“Roots & Crowns,” the latest album by progressive soundscape architects Califone, is a good reminder of why music is capable of things that literature or film simply cannot achieve.
Marshaling an array of instruments and postproduction effects, deploying lyrics less for their meaning than for their aural and rhythmic qualities, Califone creates a richly textured sonic specimen whose contemporary contours recall the melancholy, neurotic realm of early American folk-blues. The result is an album that evokes intense emotions without giving the listener any means of understanding or explaining them.
Maybe the best analogy for “Roots & Crowns” would be a certain variety of Frankenstein monster. Its songs possess all the recognizable elements of songs — melody, rhythm, singing — but those elements give the impression of having been dug up and sewn together into a new, synthetic beast. “Spider’s House,” for instance, is a dizzying amalgamation of constituent parts: a brass section that sounds straight out of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” a sinister jangling perhaps borrowed from Tom Waits and lyrics that seem to proceed from the pen of Gertrude Stein and out the mouth of Iron & Wine.
Miraculously, throughout most of the album, the whole ends up equaling much more than the sum of its parts. Almost all of the songs manage to be interesting, and a handful of them are positively heart-rending. “Our Kitten Sees Ghosts” is driven by the mournful and earthy rhythm of a finger-picked acoustic guitar, embellished by slide riffs that conjure up images of bleak trees beneath midwinter moonlight. On this track and others — “The Orchids” and “Burned by the Christians” most prominently — the genuine echoes of America’s ancient folk tradition are revived with haunting clarity, and one almost wishes that Califone had allowed the rough beauty of its guitars to ring through without relying on so many snippets of digital distortion for embellishment.
Granted, the audience is all but completely stranded when it comes to singing along, as vocalist Tim Rutili barely delivers his stream-of-consciousness lyrics above a mumble. Even if his words were intelligible, they’d still be inscrutable: “Scratched and bit/ Crawl out of the faultline/ This book is the mask on the bride/ Circle till the engine dies” have, at best, a limited shelf life in the listener’s memory.
But Califone uses words on “Roots & Crowns” much in the same manner that Jackson Pollock used his paint: not to convey symbolic meaning but to create a sense of texture and impression. As a result, the album expresses its emotions nonverbally, through the continual shifting and mingling of the many sounds it has drawn together. Rutili’s voice is not so much a voice but rather an instrument, and it lays down words with a deliberate sense of tonality and pitch much in the same way that Coltrane’s horn might have articulated a jazz solo.
As a record, “Roots & Crowns” fits together seamlessly, representing a unified work rather than a collection of disjointed songs. Its thirteen compositions may be rendered with a vibrant, even chaotic sense of originality and innovation, but no single track ever breaks free of the pattern that its companions have laid out. Even the six-minute “Black Metal Valentine,” which rambles over several different chord progressions and rhythmic structures, segues effortlessly into the perverse junkyard waltz “Rose Petal Ear.”
Still, in many places, the album’s cohesiveness could almost be construed as a dull consistency. Rutili’s sedated vocals, stifled by a veil of distortion, begin to sound as if they are stuck in second gear, and the listener might be forgiven for wanting the band to break out into an upbeat shuffle after so many rambling minutes of buzzes and squeaks and whistles. For all the unique texture conveyed by Califone’s use of special effects, there are points at which “Roots & Crowns” seems to be hopped up on style and seriously lacking in substance.
As a musical curiosity, or as a work of medium-to-high art, Califone’s latest effort emerges as a modest success. Yet, much like a reading of Stein’s poetry, it might not be the sort of experience that a listener would willingly submit to on a repeated basis.
Roots & Crowns
Thrill Jockey Records