Califone is one of the most consistently rewarding bands of the decade, having steadily perfected its ragged sound with each successive record. Songwriter Tim Rutili and his band have created a stunning collection of albums, working with producer Brian Deck (Iron & Wine) to create a strikingly original and engaging brand of experimental roots-rock. Polished ever clearer on 2007’s fantastic Roots and Crowns, Califone brings another study of music’s roots (and its potential) with its latest, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers — arguably its best effort to date.


All My Friends are Funeral Singers
Dead Oceans

The band’s sound, though not hard to deconstruct, is notably difficult to describe — its studied blend of primitive mysticism and keen experimentation do little to explain the disarming simplicity of the sum of its parts. But Rutili and company really do keep it simple: though the array of instruments they use is wide, the songs themselves are quite minimalist. They are held together — as is the case in all good songwriting — by great melodies and a wide-eyed sense of adventure.

While Rutili’s whispery vocals and softly strummed acoustic guitars might have sounded too hushed on their own, with the help of some carefully laid sizzles and squawks (courtesy of samples, synthesizers and unorthodox percussion) what emerges is a beautifully lush junkyard of sound.

Album opener “Giving Away the Bride” is a seamless study in the combination of past and future: The pulsing mantra of the chorus is aided by synthesized bleeps, bloops and bass throbs as well as assorted African percussion. The hypnotic, one-two stomps of “Salt” and “Ape-like” work similarly to conjure a sort of post-apocalyptic backwoods hootenanny, each track using spare, mechanized instrumentation to coat the primitive sounds of handclaps and ritualistic backup vocals with a steely smell of machinery.

The effortless fusion of music’s past and future — Califone’s signature aesthetic — cannot be understated: These songs, as with nearly all the songs on Funeral Singers, create a landscape both fully immersed in and fully displaced from history. Never jarring or conflicting, Funeral Singers combines the familiar with the foreign so effortlessly that it makes more streamlined records seem almost boring by comparison.

But Rutili and the group are not without a sense of practicality, employing enough pop hooks and simple melodies within their tightly crafted, deconstructed rock to keep things interesting beyond their eclectic arrangements. The pop akin to Califone, however, is more that of an Indian chant than a Temptations song.

The fractured rootsiness of “Buñuel,” with it’s driving acoustic and electric guitars, close-knit vocal harmonies and squeaky fiddle, is equal parts Pavement and alternative-country. “Polish Girls” is more fully formed rock, with Rutili singing around a well-placed guitar riff before the band breaks into a dreamy jog of beehive guitars and towering vocal harmonies.

While many have tried to pin Califone’s sound as “experimental” or “post-rock,” labeling them as such is only half right: Rutili and Co. are equal parts pre-rock (as such a genre can be imagined to exist) and post-rock. The careful deconstruction of rock’s pop forms is reconstructed beautifully with instruments and aesthetics plucked from all over music’s past, present and future. Their historical spectrum is immense, but through the prism of Funeral Singers, it is in no way intimidating.

The effect is something new altogether, a ramshackle sound Califone has been calling its own since its inception, and Funeral Singers may be the closest to ramshackle perfection the Chicago quartet has yet found.

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