While alternative country music was steamrolled in the early-'90s by the heap of flannel known as grunge, it's now experiencing a revival thanks to things like distortion pedals, ad-ins and heavy production.
Chicago's Califone are proving that, in the modern-day studio and the modern-day folk song, acoustic soul and electronic gadgetry can coexist. The acoustic-based songs of their second album, Quicksand/Cradlesnakes, have been put through the weirdo-hick-electro-producto-meter that marked works like Wilco's Yankee Foxtrot Hotel and sections of Radiohead's Kid A.
Califone was formed from the notable Chicago indie band Red Red Meat, a heavy blues and rock ensemble that made six albums under the Sub Pop label. All four original members stayed on for the new incarnation.
The key to the band's growing critical success is the aggrandizing of ancillary instruments-everything from the duct tape chord piano, bells and banjos to Cajun accordions are given starring roles alongside tender acoustic melodies. It's a process they've learned to control since the wayward compositions of their first album, Roomsound.
"The first Califone record started with all loops and computer tricks and ended up being these tiny folk songs and room-noise pieces," says frontman Tim Rutili. "These days I've been bringing in finished songs, words and all. We start with that as a skeleton. There's usually a lot of adding and overdubbing and editing which seems to work better these days as a more instinctual process-we are learning to get out of our own way."
The new approach brings Rutili's dry, non-assaulting voice and cryptic lyrics to the forefront, adding a more human touch to the melancholy work.
For Quicksand, the band laid the tracks in the back room of a truck stop owned by drummer Ben Masserella. You can hear the locale in the album, from the haunting "One," on which a spooky series of looped beeps trail off into the sound of a clock winder to "horoscopic.amputaion.honey," on which each instrumentalist gets a chance to find their voice while the song stretches out like a slow-rocking gas attendant geezer.
Two new members-Jim Becker and Joe Adamik-were also added to the lineup, and it's amazing what a little virtuosity will do for a sound.
Becker-a master of all instruments redneck, including the claw hammer banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin-makes his presence felt immediately, adding bluegrass accents to tunes including "Mean Little Seed" and "Million Dollar Funeral." Amarik is less specialized to one genre and his inflections are heavily felt in the looser songs like "yer golden ass."
"They don't bring in songs, but they will always surprise me with stuff I never would have thought of when we're doing overdubs," Rutili says. The singer insists that his band's best work comes out of improvisation, explaining that "yer golden ass," his proclaimed favorite, began with nothing more than a riff. The song represents a climax in the album, moving away form the warmer acoustics into a faster drumbeat charged with shots of streaky guitar chops.
"We didn't know the tape was running when we played that one and ended up building the song out of this riff we were just playing around with," he explains. "I wrote the words while Becker was doing his guitar overdub-it happened pretty fast."
Perhaps it was this compaction of time that made Quicksand a more cohesive release. Califone's wild sound explorations serve as interesting detours in actual songs, instead of on past albums, where the detours were the songs.