When The Anthology of American Folk Music was released in 1952, it had a great influence on the nascent folk revival of the time, as singers began to include songs from the six-LP set in their repertoire. Most of the recordings, from the years 1927-1932, had long been forgotten; Harry Smith's compilation served as something of a revelation to those who heard it.
A 1997 CD reissue of the set didn't have quite the same cultural impact, but a few musicians found a different sort of inspiration from recordings that now seemed almost ancient. Rather than offer up po-faced covers of the songs, some bands drew from the sound and spirit they heard in those scratchy recordings of songs about failed love, religion, and the macabre, filled with out-of-tune voices and manic instrumentals. One such band was Red Red Meat, which would soon transition into Califone, a sort of solo project for Tim Rutili with assistance from a rotating cast of bandmates.
"I heard those records when I was a teenager, and I was always fascinated with them, along with things like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and those Lomax field recordings," says Rutili over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. "All those American recordings that sounded like they were documenting folk music, rather than making a record. And it so happens the Anthology was reissued right around the time we began working with computers and trying different ways of recording."
This fascination with music from, in Greil Marcus's words, the "old, weird America" mingled with the possibilities offered by new recording techniques resulted in the cacophonous experiments of Red Red Meat's swan song, There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight. A more subdued take on this style would follow with Califone; while few people would call what the band does country, folk, or blues, elements of each are apparent in Califone's music, filtered through a bit of an avant-garde sensibility.
Rickety percussion, droning organ, stark piano, field recordings, and a multitude of stringed instruments are commonplace. Even though 15 or more instruments might appear on one track, there remains a homey, insular feel to the records. (This is a band that titled its first album Roomsound.) Califone's latest album, Stitches, contains a directness and lucidity that's rare for them, the result of what Rutili says is his most personal songwriting yet.
"There was a lot more recording at home this time, in solitary settings," he explains. "Also, this record needed more space for the vocals, because these songs are more about the words. This record was less about sounds for the sake of sounds—the music needed to serve the songs."
Califone's lyrics often possess a puzzling, cryptic tenor; at times it appears that Rutili's mumbled words are there more for their sound than to communicate any specific ideas. (A sample lyric from their previous album: "A dog, an exorcist, and a bride drunk and trading/Drain like dream from wine-dark eyes.") Throughout Stitches, however, there is a marked clarity to the vocals, and the lyrics are less abstract and collage-like. A mood of regret and vulnerability seems to hang over much of the album, and Rutili's common Biblical references have proliferated, most apparent in the tracks "Moses" and "Magdalena."
"I'm interested in thinking about why those stories last and why people continue to transpose them on their lives thousands of years later, why these archetypes continue," Rutili says. "Magdalena was written out of the Bible by politicians, and that character has become a symbol. I'm interested in why someone was written out of history. The story of Moses is fascinating because he led people on this long journey out of slavery, but God said, ‘Okay, you get to see the promised land but you don't actually get to go there.' Haven't you ever had a time in your life when you brought something through hell but then weren't able to enjoy it? At some point everybody thinks they're a victim and relates to that kind of struggle."
Califone is currently on tour, primarily playing a series of living-room shows. Though dates in more traditional venues like clubs and museums will feature a full band, the house shows will consist of Rutili and longtime collaborator Will Hendricks, with one other member possibly joining a few dates. Rutili says the stripped-down performance style and comfortable setting are good for his new material.
"These songs are good to play in intimate settings," he says. "They lend themselves well to these kind of shows. I love to play in these settings. We did one of these tours back in the spring and it was really interesting. I'm looking forward to it—every day is something new."
Califone will play a living-room show in Knoxville on Thursday, Sept. 5. The location will be revealed with a ticket purchase at califonemusic.com/shows.