Califone's Roots & Crowns is one of those albums, the kind that unfolds over periods of months, not days.
Truth be told, these songs are some of the band's most easily accessible to date, and several of the refrains—like the redolent electric chug of "Black Metal Valentine" or the gorgeous acoustic creep of "Burned by the Christians"—make for instant addiction. But the beauty of Roots is really buried beneath. The band's four members—Tim Rutili, Ben Massarella, Jim Becker and Joe Adamik—are collectively credited with playing over 40 instruments on 13 tracks, and the layers are as intricate as they are intentional. Each listen sheds another surface—a sample from a video arcade here, a manipulated banjo run there—while, somehow, still speaking to the song itself. The holism is evident in the details.
Roots & Crowns is another sort of album, too—the kind that almost didn't happen. Rutili says the end of the band's 2004 tour behind Heron King Blues felt like dying. He was exhausted. It had been a rocky tour: Their equipment, including several guitars and a 1917 violin, had been stolen in San Francisco. They needed a break, maybe a permanent one.
Rutili packed his bags and headed west to Los Angeles. He had lived in Chicago his entire life, first as a kid, then as a member of Friends of Betty, then as a member of Red Red Meat, then as the principal in Califone. But, now, he was 900 miles closer to his son in Arizona, and he wasn't sure if he even wanted to play in a band again. He toyed with solo recordings and scored both a documentary and a horror film called The Lost. Then, deep in the city of cinema, Rutili discovered that he wasn't done with Califone. While unpacking, he stumbled upon a set of mixtapes a friend had given him in Chicago. He was familiar with British industrial innovators Psychic TV and their album Dreams Less Sweet since high school, but he'd forgotten about its opening cut, "The Orchids." He rediscovered it on one of the gifted discs, and the lyrics—"When dreams made real become less sweet ... In the morning after the night/ That's when I fall in love with the light"—felt like redemption. For the next several months, he played it for anyone who would listen.
Rutili started writing again, and there "The Orchids" was, out in front of his songwriting conscience. When he needed a track for the credits of The Lost, he was in the middle of his "Orchids" obsession. "Dreamless," the song he wrote to close the film and to bookend what he describes as "one of the bloodiest things I've ever seen," borrowed the original Psychic TV marimba line from "The Orchids." More importantly, it nodded to the same rebirth—"Three-legged animals/ Shut their sweet eyes/ Lick their scars and grow wings." When Califone eventually began practicing, Rutili kept the "Dreamless" melody and that line, rewriting the song with that moment at its center and as its namesake. On Roots & Crowns, "3 Legged Animals" sounds a little like paradise and a lot like salvation.
In the end, Califone was essentially done with Roots & Crowns before they recorded "The Orchids" on Rutili's whim. A masterpiece, it serves as mid-album assurance that it's OK—necessary, even—to ask for help. Such sentiments don't get sweeter in dreams, much less in real life. Sometimes, that can take decades for otherwise reasonable people to realize. When it happens, as with Roots & Crowns, it sounds so right.
Califone plays with The Judy Green at Local 506 on Tuesday, Nov. 14 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10.