Album Review: Califone - King Heron Blues (deluxe reissue)

The truth is that if you’ve listened to one Califone record, you’ve listened to them all. That’s the problem with this band—the one big thing that keeps me at an arm’s length from seriously getting into them; they are just so far into this specific sound, and because of that, everything ends up sounding almost exactly the same.

Created in the wake of Red Red Meat’s demise in the late 1990s, Califone is primarily the work of Tim Rutili—it’s his weary, raspy whisper that you hear at the forefront of every Califone song. Bridging the gap between Red Red Meat’s indie blues rock leanings, blending it with idiosyncratic, rootsy folk and glitchy laptop experimentalism and dissonance, Califone’s sound is, on paper, a unique and divisive one. But its in the execution where you realize there is little, if anything, that separates one song built around tribal percussion, laptop warbles, ramshackle acoustic guitar strums, and Rutili’s vocals from another.

King Heron Blues, the band’s 2004 effort, served as my introduction to Califone—a friend in college passed along a copy to me around the same time he was cluing me into albums like Neon Golden and You Forgot it in People. I didn’t dislike it, but I also didn’t connect with it as directly or as immediately as I did with The Notwist or Broken Social Scene.

In 2006, I tried with Roots and Crowns; in 2009, I tried again with All My Friends Are Funeral Singers; in 2013, I tried yet again with Stitches. Early on, I backtracked and tried with Roomsound, then, later, with Quicksand/Cradlesnakes. None of it really took, you know? I mean, Califone are a band. They don’t make terrible or unlistenable music—it’s something that I want to like, I really do. But something prevents it from resonating completely with me, and it winds up being unmemorable and difficult to access.

Arriving 13 years after its initial release, King Heron Blues has been remastered and reissued as part of the band’s slow moving reissue campaign via Dead Oceans. And along side the album’s eight original songs, it is paired with six additional tracks, including live studio recordings of older tracks, a cover, and something pulled from a radio session.

Putting it mildly, King Heron Blues is a dense and difficult record—a cycle of songs that is written around a recurring nightmare that Rutili had been plagued by since his childhood about a ‘giant man-bird’—an ancient Druid god figure called ‘the heron king.’ It opens with one of the few expansive moments, “Wingbone,” a relatively sparse song structured around loose acoustic guitar strumming that resonates across both channels, with Rutili’s spectral croak delivering cryptic and fragmented lyrics.

It’s on the album’s second track, “Trick Bird,” that things start to get murky and nervy, as the band’s aesthetic descends into that glitchy, laptop folk area—King Heron Blues is probably the album where they dabbled with this the most, though that spirit of experimentalism and finding the place between organic and digital is present in a bulk of the Califon canon. The rest of King Heron Blues is, truthfully, a balancing act between the two dynamics—songs like the rustic “Sawtooth Sung a Cheater’s Song” or “Lion and Bee” are based around banjos and deeply resonating acoustic guitar strums; while a track like “Apple” is focused on a heavy, percussive loop with traditional instrumentation floating on top of it.

Interestingly enough, in the album’s final third, Rutili leads the band into what can only be described as ‘nightmare funk.’ There is a definite groove somewhere on the unsettlingly titled “2 Sisters Drunk on Each Other,” but there’s enough cacophony and tension to overpower it—the same thing happens on the lengthy titular track, as the electric guitar chugs and snarls become very freewheeling over a stomping and effected drum beat. Perhaps this is all a continuation of the blues leanings of Rutili’s earlier outfit, Red Red Meat

Included in the King Heron Blues reissue’s ephemeral material are three songs billed as “Clava Live Versions” of songs featured on Califone’s previous efforts. I stop short of saying the versions of “Electric Fence,” “St. Martha,” and “Red” that are featured here ‘humanize’ Califone—because I don’t know if Califone is a band that is in need of humanization—however, they have a different feeling to them. “Electric Fence” benefits from the booming piano chords and brushed percussion; “St. Martha” becomes hypnotic thanks to the unrelenting banjo plucking that serves as its sinister sounding rhythm; and “Red” plunges a relatively straightforward song from Quicksand/Cradlesnakes into a dark abyss of dissonance and disquiet.

King Heron Blues may not be Califone’s most accessible or direct album, but it also isn’t as daunting as some of their later material could be; and as a band, Califone is certainly not for everybody, but here I am, like 13 years later, still trying to make progress with them. For longtime listeners, this reissue of King Heron Blues is probably very welcome—the original LP is long out of print, as are many of the band’s earliest records. I would make some kind of broad, sweeping comment on how the reissue sounds when compared to the original, but my burned CD copy seems to be missing, or misplaced, somewhere in the catacombs of my basement. But for someone struggling to grasp Tim Rutili’s sound, it’s easy to write it off saying that it is ‘mood music’ and you have to be in ‘the right mood’ to enjoy it or take something away from it, but that would imply I’ve been in the wrong mood since I was 21.