Heron King Blues
he easiest thing to love about Califone’s latest album are the sounds. It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to a band, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s the sounds that draw me in to this strange, lost, meandering dream album. But as with so many great records, it's not that the sounds themselves are particularly new: the key is their unexpected juxtaposions.
The main sounds that are obvious on this record are human voice, guitars, slide guitars, banjos, hurdy gurdies, and tuned drums that sound like djembes or tomtoms. Sometimes you can hear loops that have been sampled and manipulated. But just stating those facts is misleading. What Califone have come up with is a real old-time down-home country-fried sound. The sampling isn't processed to sound all drum'n'bassy or IDM. Instead, the loops have been degraded so much that they sound like they're being played back on an old victrola.
The guitars are mostly acoustic and are played to sound hard, sharp and brittle, but are frequently stretched to the limit of bending, sounding closer to their snapping point at every strummed note. Most of the time, there are alternating lead parts played in opposite sides of the stereo spectrum. When the slide guitars are employed, they have an effortless, sailing quality that recalls the best of antique country music. There are also clouds of long distortion seagulls, fluttering around at sunset, calling to each other, their voices dissappearing into the wind. The guitars mostly play old modes rather than jazz scales or typical blues leads, despite the album's name. Think Jimmy Page doing the old Black Mountain Side thing.
The addition of banjos and hurdy gurdies (although I am not sure they aren't accordians) go further towards setting the mood. They are complemented by the bizarre tuned drums that appear on almost every track. Frequently, the drums are looped into steady patterns, giving the guitars something from which to base their melodies. Occasionally the sounds remind one of noisy breakbeats and, at other times, the reliable downtempo four-on-the-floor of old blues music. Califone aren't trying to outdo Squarepusher at his own game. They just want to recreate the historical banging drums of old that they grew up with on Muddy Waters records.
The weak point of the disc, however, is the songwriting. Few leave a lasting impression after the initial playing—they simply aren’t memorable enough to urge the listener to come back for more. Despite the blues influences, Califone avoid traditional twelve-bar blues progressions, but don't come up with anything better. The recent releases of Ogurushu Norihide have similar idyllic guitars, understated drum loops, and modal lead lines—but contains an important difference. Melodies that stick in your head for days. Something that Califone simply doesn’t have here. But if you’re in it for pure sonic pleasure, you’re in the right place.
Reviewed by: Francis Henville
Reviewed on: 2004-02-04