Califone – Heron King Blues

Heron King Blues

Indie rock has never been into improvisation. Scared off by potential Grateful Dead and – gasp – Phish comparisons, the underground music scene has remained averse to lengthy passages of “jam” music. Even the members of the indie community whose musical leanings might easily give way to such indulgences have stayed far away. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, for example, deals in lengthy instrumental passages, and while it’s possible and even probable that such passages were improvised in the studio, the band performs the “songs” in virtually the same way at every live show. Ditto for Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky.
There are, however, outliers. Sonic Youth (members of whom have publicly pronounced their like of the Grateful Dead) has often veered into the realm of improvisation, the band’s forays into the world of avant-garde jazz no doubt weighing heavily on their decisions. Recently, the “electro-punk” bands of the NYC scenes have shown jammy tendencies. The Rapture, for all of their dance floor pandering, has shown to be increasingly willing to improvise and extend. !!! is about one step away from being a full-blown jam band.
Califone has taken a different road to improvisation. While the jam bands tirelessly aim to move the dance floor, Califone expands and extends in the name of discovery and texture. The band’s Deceleration series found Califone improvising elongated pieces while watching short films, and the third proper full-length, Heron King Blues, builds on the textures and found-sound experiments.
Last year’s excellent Quicksand/Cradlesnakes brought Tim Rutili’s ever-improving songcraft to new heights, highlighting his penchant for creaky, Americana melodies. Heron King Blues represents the other side of the Califone spectrum – weird, craggy, and innovative. The band’s singular sound translates well to the airy, loose vibe that runs throughout Heron. “2 Sisters Drunk on Each Other” incorporates funk guitar into a muted rhythm kick, as Rutili spits his poetic non-sequiturs through the mist. The title track is the one everyone will talk about as the “jam” track, and rightly so. “Heron King Blues” is an exercise in free-form sonics. Distorted guitars scraps run angrily into one another, constantly depending on the junk-shop rhythm section as a safety net. Like Tom Waits’ Bone Machine, but denser, the track has an atmosphere about it that is nearly as important as the aural vibes.
For all of the talk about improvisation, there are some truly fine songs on Heron. “Wingbone” opens the album with what has now become standard fare for Rutili: panned acoustic plinking, some wayward slide guitar, and his charming, miserly vocals. “Trick Bird” is easily the album’s most impressive track. Sounding like the Rolling Stones slowed down to half-speed, Rutili crafts beautiful melodies over tribal percussion. The track has a warm, welcoming vibe, and the vocals that harmonize around Rutili during the chorus are simply stunning.
Heron King Blues, for all its successes, is not an album for Califone rookies. Less-experienced fans should look to Quicksand or the fantastic EP-collection Sometimes Bad Weather Follows Good People. Heron King Blues is a different step for the band, applying the sonic variance of the Deceleration series to Rutili’s unique songwriting skills. For fans acquainted with Rutili’s beautiful take on American music, however, Heron King is a must, a sprawling, scattered vision of melody and noise.