Bumper-car rhythms, quasi-philosophical lyrics: It’s been nearly a decade since Califone got together, and the band is still successfully toying with the stuff that works. With their latest release, Roots and Crowns, the Chicago foursome doesn’t break new ground, but the consistency of the album – with just a splash of the unorthodox – is reassuring.

Morgan Morel
“Jesus, what is that thing?” (Courtesy of Loperco.com)

Roots and Crowns opens with “Pink & Sour,” a track rife with pulsing, aortic drumbeats and Tim Rutili’s Beck-esque vocals. But the lyrics are mostly indecipherable, as is the case for most of Califone’s songs on this album. Rutili sounds unusually sexy as he begs, “Sing to me pink and sour.” The frontman’s vocal style coupled with tribal instrumentation make “Pink & Sour” one of the album’s key cuts.

Califone’s synthesis of robotic sounds, vocal overdubbing and seemingly random noise effects result in the lovely “Black Metal Valentine.” Again, Rutili swallows the lyrics, but it doesn’t really matter, as the instrumentation is the song’s focal point. Mellow guitar is introduced near the end, highlighting the band’s blues-rock background.

“Sunday Noises” and “A Chinese Actor” add to the group of standalone tracks. Dreamy vocals and sentimental, airy brass combine on the “Noises,” while a thundering drumline propels the latter. “Actor” is a rhythmic sibling of “2 Sisters Drunk On Each Other” from 2004’s Heron King Blues. Handclaps and buzzy static combine to add character. Rutili even changes up his monotone vocals, singing, “A dim headlight arrives / Friction breathe tenderness” in a delicate falsetto, sounding similar to Flaming Lips showman Wayne Coyne.

While most of this disc is packed tightly with silken, flowing melodies and engaging lyrics, not all tracks follow that recipe. “Our Kitten Sees Ghosts” is not as eerily precious as the title suggests, and “Alice Crawley” serves as a short, pointless violin introduction for the following track, the just-as-unappealing “The Orchids.” The song relentlessly plods along, leaving the listener lethargic and emotionally down at its close.

After listening to Roots and Crowns, it’s clear that Califone knows how to make a (relatively) glowing album. The only hindrance? You’ll wish all of the songs shone as brightly as the track names.

Star Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Roots and Crowns
Thrill Jockey

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