Whether it be under the guise of Califone or part of the underground alt-rock luminaries Red Red Meat, Tim Rutili has forever been a mercurial master of mystery. His sweeping folk-inspired songs flirting with tender-hearted balladry, but never quite reaching that far.
Through tangled electronics and the relics of blues and soft rock, the Califone experience in particular has always been like that dream you can never quite capture. One that feels within arm’s reach but vanishes within the blink of an eye. Or in many ways, “Sound against sound” as Rutili confesses on Comedy – one of the many shining lights on the latest Califone dispatch, Villagers.
Following 2020’s under the radar Echo Mine, alongside long-time sidekicks and fellow noodlers Ben Massarella, Michael Krassner, Rachel Blumberg, Max Knouse and Brian Deck, Villagers sees Rutili at his most comfortable. From front to back, it’s a sea of effortless melodies, sharp witticism and subtle, atmospheric arrangements.
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“The way your memory works is not mine” he sings on the opening folk-laden soft rock serenade, The Habsburg Jaw. Lyrically and sonically, it’s an abstract passage that stitches together a lifetime of half-forgotten imaginings. It’s where nostalgia, the present and the future align, and Villagers is crafted between the lines of style and sub-genres. In typical Calfione fashion, it’s music operating within the margins, and that’s where this project has offered its best results.
The piano-led Sunday morning swoon of Eyelash sees Rutili recounting the kind of story that can only be inspired through the ups and downs one encounters with age. (“I was in town for a death in the family/ You never left/ You started a story which you could not finish/ And I waited”). His wordplay, renewed in emphatic ways, with sly digs at a world swallowed up by capitalism (just look at the title of McMansions). On Eyelash, we are greeted with the first of many Rutilisms (“Cadillac hope/ Capitalism/ Killed by an eyelash”).
With delicate twangs and echoes of bluegrass, on the title track Rutili garners wonderful results from simplicity, (“Roxy Music cassette / Dying in the dashboard sun”). Meanwhile, with low-slung melodies, rich keys and brass that fills in the gaps, Comedy (as strange as it sounds) is the kind of track Bruce Springsteen should have included on Darkness on the Edge of Town. However, with a lyrical passage like “Coming back from the war / I was a camera / I was a preacher / Comedy was the blood in your mouth / Not a preacher anymore”, essentially this is a song that only Rutili could execute.
On the groove-infused electric folk of Ox-Eye, Rutili examines the misery of the modern day and how technology overshadows just about everything. Then there’s the downright gorgeous Halloween; the two tracks clear highlights, both illuminating the kind of gold rush quality that makes Califone the proposition that it is.
With subtle licks, finger-picked guitars and percussive echoes akin to the beginning of Spiritualized’s Cop Shoot Cop, Skunkish almost evokes the image of Rutili rifling through old scrap books filled with lyrics (“When did I became the theme in the story/ That you wear on your face like a mask”). Blending simplicity with experimentalism and nuance, only Rutili could produce something that many others would deem a square peg in a round hole. Alongside Massarella, Krassner, Blumberg, Knouse and Deck, together they somehow make this work.
Not since the wonderful Stitches (which, incidentally, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year) has the Califone experience been this interesting and immediate. Those in the new music sphere continually chasing the thunderbolt – well, Villagers is very much that, up there with the finest among the Califone oeuvre, also making it one of the pleasant surprises of 2023.
Villagers is out via Jealous Butcher. Purchase from Bandcamp.
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