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Califone - Quicksand / Cradlesnakes

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Artist: Califone

Album: Quicksand / Cradlesnakes

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Mar. 30, 2003

Roots Unrooted

On their second full-length, Quicksand / Cradlesnakes, Chicago's Califone pick up pretty close to where they last left off. Tearing scraps out of the American Songbag and reassembling a ragged collage of country blues, Appalachian folk, and Southern rock with an oatmeal paste of studio wizardry, the ex-members of Red Red Meat and company have readied a worthy conflation of the sounds they've been toying with on various EPs and side-projects since 1998. It's less a progression than a confident reworking of the twang-filled tensions that have marked their previous releases for Road Cone, Flydaddy, and the band's own Perishable imprint. Now, primed for wider distribution by Chicago's esteemed Thrill Jockey label, Califone have released what is arguably their most cohesive offering to date.

The elements that have served the band so well since '98 continue to do so on Quicksand / Cradlesnakes. By building breathing room into their song-structures, Califone maintain their ability to draw taut distinctions between the swelling texture of bowed strings, piano chords, and electronics on the one hand and the lone reverberation of a raw, plucked guitar note on the other. This liberal use of negative space lends the best songs on Quicksand / Cradlesnakes a tottering fragility, leaving them feeling elegantly sparse in spite of layered arrangements. "Michigan Girls" is a fine example – the moody pauses and isolated twang of the lead guitar contrast nicely with the rich orchestral backing of piano, violin, organ, electronics, and Fred Lonberg-Holm's always-elegant cello.

Underneath it all, Ben Massarella's unusual percussion noises and minimal rhythmic sense are still Califone's navigating pulse. Because he's more likely to rattle a drawer of silverware than touch a cymbal, there's a rootsy clang and clutter to the whole shambling affair, not to mention a blurred distinction between what's melody and what's percussion. "Cat Eats Coyote" is one place where the band steps away from conventional song structure and lets Massarella build a layered rhythm track out of mostly unidentifiable sound sources – clashing them against a distant, wonking saxophone solo. There's a nice NNCK looseness to the jumbled minute-and-a-half piece before it slides into "Your Golden Ass" – a swampy, bass-heavy rocker that plays more like Eleventh Dream Day than jazzy improv. In this way, Califone strike a nice balance between meandering experimentalism (a la 2002's instrumental Deceleration One) and focused, melody-driven songwriting. When they err it's because they're too hesitant to stray far from a framework of repetitive chord progressions. "(Red)" only begins to unravel in its final moments, but the short, untethered interplay of wandering, fretless banjo, clanging percussion, and trilling horn that results is more appealing, in my opinion, than the plodding and repetitive bass-driven melody of the rest of the song. On the other hand, "(Red)" is followed by "Million Dollar Hotel" which works just fine as a simple, decelerated fiddle reel, so there are no set guidelines about what best anchors a Califone song.

Tim Rutili's vocals are one of Califone's most distinctive features and the most frustrating element in their cumulative sound. In a receptive mood you might find Rutili's voice akin to Eric Bachmann's – gruff, world-weary, and likable – but there are moments when he too-closely approximates that rootsy, soulful bleating of the Suntanama's Darren Zoltowski. Rutili's delivery is usually direct enough to confuse the fact that his words most often float in one ear and out the other. Califone are as lyrically scattered and opaque as Perishable cohort Tim Kinsella (without, thankfully, the obnoxious punning) but their words function pretty effectively as textural adornments rather than strands of a coherent narrative. When this approach works it's marvelous – on "Stepdaughter" most of Rutili's phrases trail off into indecipherable regions of speech, but his delivery is so earnest and the guitar so yearning that his talk of "marinating in steam and soft light" seems to mean something shivery and mysterious. At other points, "Spit it out james take it all apart / Waiting for the yellow bleed mustard from a crow" is the sort of thing that detracts from the otherwise wonderful interplay of fiddle and banjo.

Compared with a resurgent crop of folk and blues-based avant-innovators, Califone have proven themselves to be both amongst the most conventionally song-based and the most sonically experimental of their peers. Quicksand / Cradlesnakes is a fine display of what they're capable of, and should please anyone in the mood for roots music that's a bit unrooted for a change.

By Nathan Hogan

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