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Califone
All My Friends Are Funeral Singers Noel Gardner , November 2nd, 2009 08:32

Active for over a decade now, and here unveiling their eleventh full album (your tally may differ due to the murky status of some of their releases) Chicago's Califone represent what Wilco might have evolved into if, in the late 90s, they'd decided they were never going to sell any records so they might as well just tinker awkwardly. All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, as it goes, has more in the way of heel-kicking raucousness than their average release, but there is still plenty of alt.countrydude-puzzling gloop, such as the three noodly ambient interludes that have amusing capitalised 'fake Chinese superstition' titles for some reason (example: 'SNAKE'S TOOTH — PROTECTION AGAINST FEVER AND LUCK IN GAMBLING').

'Giving Away The Bride', too, is a curious orange of an opener: vocalist Tim Rutili sounds a bit like a listless Jennifer Herrema and, crypto-Suicide drum machine aside, the band sound a bit like lateish-period Royal Trux in a flotation tank. This isn't a bad thing, but will probably nix the patience of a shedload of unscrupulous dickbag downloaders who will kick All My Friends Are Funeral Singers to the recycle bin and move onto the next plundered artefact. That probably isn't a bad thing either, thinking about it. The album's fourteen tracks consistently switch tempo and mood with a louche lurch, but are generally more . . . upright after the opener. '1928' is more or less the sort of thing Califone do best: country blues drifts that manage to feel simultaneously airy and leaden — semi-whispered vox, atonal plucking, creaking strings feeling blindly in the ether. 'Ape-like', powered by a single relentless bass drum and a bluegrass clatter session, and the terrific 'Salt' bracket the band with the often rippin' new one by psych underground roadsters MV&EE — marble-mouthed, dual-vocalled laments for fiddle'n'banjo.

As for the less glowing lights, there's 'Buñuel': a song about cult Mexican director Luis that's musically rather more listless than you suspect that fiery figure would have liked. 'Funeral Singers' is apparently intentionally underproduced, its loud, lumbering Lou Barlow-esque acoustic guitar married to inexplicable samples and halfway-psychedelic mimbling. It is better than that sounds — Califone have enough creativity and inherent charm to rescue what seem like dubious ideas — but it doesn't add a great deal to the album's arc. That's not to say that their indieish turns aren't any use: 'Polish Girls', born of similar strum'n'FX origins, has the fractious feel of, say, Silkworm, which is fine. If you're a longtime fan of Sub Pop-signed pre-Califone band Red Red Meat, or even if you only snagged their Bunny Gets Paid reissue earlier this year, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers might strike you as being, at different times, both more and less demonstrably 'indie' than RRM. While obviously built on a raft of many influences, their spaced-out downer rock trod a fairly different path than Califone tend to.

At the risk of being that reviewer who projects his own blind spots and shortcomings onto the subject of his analysis — well, I know I have a dire, bird-brained attention span, yet I suspect that All My Friends Are Funeral Singers will need the average listener to really put in the hours, and not be led astray by the shotgun wedding of woozy ambient rock and rusty Americana. (It would probably help if you owned it on some sort of physical format, rather than a sand-through-fingers download.) Califone have, after all, gone to the trouble of making a movie to which this album serves as a soundtrack. Angela Bettis from Girl, Interrupted is in it and, in filming it "in an old, rickety house in Indiana in the spring of 2009," the band have suggested that they fear no accusations of self-parody. That's perhaps Califone's most endearing element: they clearly know their way round the annals of the American folk music traditions, and could play it with an authentic hickory bat if they wanted, but they have a sense of mischief (masquerading as seriousness) that leads them to scribble on the rules.

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