Anything but mediocre.
'Roots & Crowns' is the eighth album release from American experimental band Califone. The project began in the late 1990s when frontman Tim Rutili and percussionist Ben Massarella formed the band following the breakup of Rutili's former project, Red Red Meat. Over the years the band have released a mixture of instrumental and song-based albums (of which 'Roots & Crowns' is the latter) with various line-ups and contributors. The band have not achieved huge mainstream success, but have built up a loyal fanbase and frequently pleased critics on both sides of the Atlantic.
The most striking feature of opening track 'Pink & Sour' is its interesting use of percussion, incorporating rhythms and techniques most often heard in World (especially African) music. Although it could not be described as a chilled or ambient track, it certainly does not shout for one's attention and is understated in the skill of its crafting. 'Pink & Sour' may not be a track that is instantaneously catchy but it has thought and musical talent behind it, and is certainly a 'grower'.
In songs such as 'Sunday's Noises' and 'The Orchids' Califone's folk influences are most apparent. The former is a pleasant, well-written acoustic track that suits Tim Rutili's husky vocal perfectly; the latter a less chilled-out track complete with the (dreaded by many) sound of the harmonica. Other slower songs such as 'The Eye You Lost In The Crusade' and 'Our Kitten Sees Ghosts' do not have a great deal of force behind them and tend to err on the side of the forgettable. This is perhaps due to their being more formulaic than most of the CD's tracks and thus bringing to mind numerous mediocre singer-songwriters. 'Burned By The Christians' however is both one of the album's more downbeat tracks and one of its most memorable, due to the strong emotion it conveys.
'Spider's House' ('built on the sound of a piano with duct tape and paper clips all over its wires', according to the album's press release) and 'A Chinese Actor' are among the most upbeat of 'Roots & Crowns's tracks and arguably posess the most instant appeal. It is impossible not to tap one's foot to the beat of 'Spider's House', or to rejoice in its brass section. 'A Chinese Actor' is a definite stand-out track, with a strong bouncy beat, unusual percussion and occasional falsetto. Even if you managed to keep both feet on the floor for the duration of 'Spider's House' 'A Chinese Actor' will manage to overcome any remaining resistance.
Califone save their strongest tracks for the last quarter of the album, however. 'Black Metal Valentine' is a six minute masterpiece, combining several genres – ambient, folk, blues, rock – and instrument types – traditional, rock, electronic, blues – to produce a complex work that sounds more like three songs that just one. It's most notable features are the various vocal effects and styles employed by Rutili and the various beats and rhythms produced by the bass, guitar and percussion sections.
'3 Legged Animals' is slightly louder than the majority of the album's tracks, and closer to a typical rock song in structure. Like 'The Orchids', '3 Legged Animals' employs the harmonica, but fortunately not in an overpowering way. It is one of the album's most emotional tracks, and this, as well as its comparatively more traditional structure may render it one of 'Roots & Crowns's most accessible tracks. Ambient piece ' If You Would' then closes the album gently, Rutili's vocals nicely set against a delicate soundscape that builds into a wall of sound just before the track's close.
'Roots & Crowns' is not an album that will appeal to everyone. Fans of the Artic Monkeys, The Automatic and other pop-rock or pop-indie bands will find that Califone cannot provide the instant shallow gratification that they seek and thus are accustomed to. Listeners who like their music to be made with care, feeling and good ideas will find much to like here however; as will those who make music themselves and/or are interested in the hearing of instruments employed in non-traditional manners. Although 'Roots& Crowns' is not an album likely to grab many on its very first play (although individual songs such as 'A Chinese Actor' and '3 Legged Animals' may well do so) it is far from mediocre and offers something new every time it is heard – a welcome relief in a music scene when so much sounds the same or becomes boring after a single play.