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October 17, 2006

Califone's Roots and Crowns—mixed styles, mixed results

Popularity and talent are often completely unrelated. In the world of music, talent can only get one so far. Luck and timing are two variables out of the artist’s control. Perhaps Roots and Crowns, the eighth and arguably finest effort from indie-collective Califone, will catapult the band into a new stratosphere.

Led by primary guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, Tim Rustili, Califone combines the intricate patterns of alternative music with blues, jazz, funk, folk, and shades of classical. The variety of instruments employed by the band members underscores their willingness to ignore the limits of any single genre in search of truly original sound.

Music on albums such as Roots & Crowns clearly draws on an array of influences in an attempt to discover a new sound. Tracks like “Our Kittens Sees Ghosts” may remind the listener of Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam. As a whole, Being There-era Wilco appears to have had a strong impact on the alternative country leanings on portions of the album. Like Being There, heavy beats are weaved in with elements of traditional folk and country.

While influences affect all music, the songs “Pink & Sour,” “3-Legged Animals,” and “If You Would” appear to have come from a truly original place. The fresh sound of these three songs will no doubt spawn countless imitations in the future.

The songwriting is mellow without becoming boring. Unlike most albums attempting to capture and retain this kind of mood, the lyrics are secondary to the music. In fact, as a listener, I treat the vocals as merely another percussive instrument that adds to the work as a whole. Upon actually listening to the lyrics, I found myself missing the sonic goals of Califone. It is much easier to let the words pass through you as if they were merely sounds. This cannot help but affect my enjoyment of the album.

However, Califone’s Roots & Crowns gives the listener two alternative ways of enjoying the music with differing results. One could treat the music as if it were entirely instrumental, or try to uncover meaning in the subtle lyrics. While I may prefer to ignore the lyrics, others may embrace them. This option highlights the musical ingenuity of Califone and simultaneously undermines the purpose of lyrics themselves. In the end, they are not there to be ignored, despite the fact that I may try to do just that.

The song “A Chinese Actor” begins with a beat that could be found in the opening of a hip-hop track. It quickly breaks from that style and delves into a heavy alternative sound. Each song moves from genre to genre by incorporating a variety of influences. This opens the door for the one glaring negative on Roots & Crowns: There is not one sound or rhythm indicative of the album of the whole. In this sense, the album lacks a clear focus. That is not to imply, however, that the lack of a center was unintentional. There are plenty of great albums that draw on a variety of influences. In fact, with most great albums that is usually the case. It appears at times that Rustili and company are trying desperately to pack every influence into one album in order to display their collective musical mastery. The feel of Roots & Crowns, then, is bizarre because the tracks avoid true cohesion. The fact that all the songs are beautiful, separate entities hurts the album for me because it is not really an album at all. While the songs are excellent for the most part, Roots & Crowns quickly degenerates into a soulless album emulating the model of a Greatest Hits package. Nonetheless, the popularity of Califone is sure to increase because of their obvious skill.

Roots & Crowns is rooted in early folk music and the Delta Blues. Despite such early influences, Califone is clearly a product of modernity. From 21st-century Electronica to turn of the 20th-century Appalachia, Califone has produced a brilliant but flawed album that is still worth hearing.