Roots and Crowns
wo years ago I interviewed Tim Rutili for my college newspaper. At one point I threw out the “What are your influences?” gem. He liked the Beatles. And Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. I was disappointed. Dude had been running the Midwestern noise-folk scene for nearly a decade as a member of Red Red Meat and Califone. He had just released an album that ended with two unabashed funk jams—obtuse funk jams, but funk jams nonetheless—one of which was possibly about lesbian incest. I don’t know what I wanted Rutili’s influences to be, but the fucking Beatles didn’t seem to cut it.
Two years and one album later, I can’t help but feel a little cheated. The excellent, lilting cover of Psychic TV’s “Orchids” suspended in the middle of Roots and Crowns is a nice way of saying “I’m not just into semi-obscure English industrial/ambient electronic pioneers; I dig their splinter projects too.”
Judging by the rest of Roots and Crowns—and large chunks of Rutili’s prior work—the Fab Four’s not such a bad touchstone either. Califone fuck with some incredible pop music, but they’re loathe to present it as such. His riverbed pipes and haunted guitar glaze over the canyons between Lennon, Clarence Ashley, and Genesis P-Orridge. In the hands of a more ostentatious observer, the horns and harmonies of “Spiders House” preen and strut; Rutili walks humbly, humming softly as a plinking violin and gentle piano guide the song on its way.
These slight dynamic shifts mask what is otherwise a surprisingly rangy album. “Pink and Sour”: an abrasive percussive blitz, “Our Kitten Sees Ghosts”: a shivering folk tale, “A Chinese Actor”: a burgeoning, riffing tumble; Roots and Crowns’s willful diversity speaks to Rutili’s understated penmanship, his band’s distorted pop ethics. Shit, the aforementioned “Orchids” reimagines industrial sex/waste/addiction as George Harrison balladry.
Rutili’s low-tenor swims through the arrangements, pushing stream-of-consciousness yarns through a mouth full of marbles. It’s art-school mush if you want it to be—“Old jet sweet light tavern in the morning taxi driver”—but Rutili will creep up with stunners. “A Chinese Actor” coasts gently before Rutili rises in harmony, “Thin my blood / California / If we ever get to home / Plant myself among the weeds and pray.” More importantly, Rutili’s surrealism bleeds into his sneakily hummable tales, coming to a head on nearly strident “3Legged Animals”: “Hands fit together like medicine,” “Spell your name in broken teeth.”
Rutili’s not telling stories—at least not discernibly—and he doesn’t much care for syntax or structure, but he weaves a diverse cast of ornaments and baubles into his screwed ‘n’ chopped noise pop. A virtual fun-house of found-sounds, noise passages, and brilliantly obscured folk music, Roots and Crowns erects an autumnal haze out of its influences, whatever they may be. Califone has worked, skillfully, with all of these styles and sounds before, but they’ve never left the table with a more realized, delicate treatment.