I cannot imagine that many people expected the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? to gain unwarranted hit status, snag a few Grammies, and even help fuel an old-time folk/blues revival throughout the country. Rusty Depression-era music just doesn’t usually scream commercial success. The revival — or fad — came and went. Casual listeners enjoyed their pleasant hikes over the Big Rock Candy Mountain but left all too soon. The dirt and sweat of this forgotten time has settled back into a ghost-like existence in some distant land of crumbling barns and sun-dusted railroad tracks.
Tim Rutili and Ben Massarella of Califone seem quite comfortable in this faraway place. A decade ago, Rutili and Massarella cut their teeth on louder, more rock-oriented blues in Chicago’s Red Red Meat. Some five albums into their career, Califone has developed a distinctly beautiful modernization of forgotten times. Listening to wonderful prior accomplishments like 2001’s Roomsound and 2003’s Quicksand/Cradlesnakes, one gets the feeling that Robert Johnson and Charley Patton dragged their demons from the Delta into an abandoned Chicago warehouse, fell in love with Musique Concrete, learned to use pedals and other effects, and churned out nothing but genius.
Based on “Wingbone,” the first track of Heron King Blues, not much seems to have changed. Lovely, deep acoustic guitars surround the mix, accompanied by minimalist percussion and Rutili’s dark, gritty voice. His songwriting gets better with every album — traditional softer songs like “Wingbone” and “Lion & Bee” really shine.
But even more remarkable is the huge stylistic progress Califone has made with its other new pieces. From the eerie heartbeat percussion of “Trick Bird” onward, you can hear Rutili and Co. bringing ancient sounds not just into the modern day but into the future. Laptops bleep and snap, horns blare and a thousand different percussive surfaces (one of them is likely a kitchen sink) rattle and crack. There is even a full-fledged, groovy-as-all-hell funk freakout. Comparisons to the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light might border on hyperbole, but both albums’ love of percussion and texture places them in the same family.
Yet the spirit of the blues is still readily alive in Heron King. Most of the songs are improvised, and some listeners may need patience to get through the longer jams, especially the 14-minute title track. But the payoff is worth it. Multiple listens reveals enormous complexity, warmth and intensity, and the constant fear that everything will implode into sheer noise makes for an enthralling experience. Califone makes music in another world, a place where past, present and future cease to exist. Lucky for us, albums like Heron King Blues do a damn fine job at transporting us there.