Good Things Come | Music | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Good Things Come 

Califone gets better over time.

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Popular wisdom dictates we never have a second chance to make a first impression. Such logic might apply to job interviews and blind dates, but it grossly contradicts Califone’s cult following. The Chicago rock experimentalists attract fans whose rabid devotion rivals that of Deadheads and Morrissey worshippers, a special breed of music lovers willing to drop everything to trail their idols on tour and perhaps even name a few offspring after co-founder Tim Rutili.

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But these disciples didn’t sprout overnight. Califone’s sound is not, for the most part, immediately accessible. Their latest release Roots & Crowns is one of their more traditional albums and even its complex orchestration takes a few listens to catch. Once the addiction forms, however, there’s no turning back. Songs like “Spider’s House,” with its eerie strings and thumping toy pianos, opener “Pink & Sour” pounding banshee rhythms beneath Rutili’s hushed confidence and the tense, minimalist “Rose Petal Ear,” are appealing in a way radio-friendly pop can’t possibly match. With myriad instruments casting subtle magic behind the scenes, each rotation lends new surprises. New impressions.

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“We try to keep things real open,” Rutili says in a phone call, his voice mingling with passing traffic. “We love surprises. Usually those amazing moments happen when you’re open to having them happen'when they’re not overly prepared.”

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Not that Califone rushed things. Far from it. After touring in support of 2004’s Heron King Blues, they were “totally fried” and ready for a much-needed two-year hiatus to rest, refocus and dabble in different projects. Rutili moved to Los Angeles to produce soundtracks and live closer to his son in Arizona. The break proved valuable enough to justify brief intermissions when they regrouped for Roots & Crowns.

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“We worked for a couple of weeks, didn’t see each other for two months, then headed back,” Rutili says, adding that a flexible schedule allowed ideas to simmer and grow. Califone might jam, but their compositions aren’t total free-for-alls. Rutili starts the creative process, bringing in skeletal songs to which a revolving cast of players contribute valuable vision: a harmonica here, electronic loops there, until the track is judged complete. That said, even well structured tunes become something else entirely in a live setting.

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“We don’t think about re-creating what we did in the studio,” Rutili says. “Some people say it sounds a lot more full live, some say it sounds a lot more empty.” Most will likely agree it’s a little of both, which helps explain familiar faces in the audience night after night. Constantly expecting the unexpected, their excitement mirrors that of first-time parents terrified of missing one of life’s big moments.

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Filmmakers Joshua Marie Wilkinson and Solan Jenson tried to capture at least part of Califone’s steady development through more than 250 hours worth of concert footage shot over the course of their 2004 tour. The documentary, edited down and awaiting release, turns the tables on a group accustomed to scoring'not acting in'films, although the film provided a nice ego boost.

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“People are going to be surprised how great we look on film. In person, we’re not that attractive,” he says with a laugh. “In fact, we look better when we’re not playing. We’re much better looking if there’s footage of us at a gas station'we look amazing.”

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Califone wrote their first improvisational soundtrack for Harry Smith’s Early Abstractions, which led to Rutili’s work creating music for silent, offbeat movies with Jim Becker in Box Head. Califone later performed their original scores in concert, creating a truly retro experience.

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“It’s a great thing, especially in this day and age when people are in their homes glued to the computer and television,” he says. “Anything that brings people out and together in one room is pretty awesome.”

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Of course, without computers there would be no Francis, the haunting animated short he created with filmmaker Brent Green about an aging woman bent on dying. Its images, which bring to mind Tim Burton’s macabre sensibility, flicker across the dimly lit screen as Rutili narrates her highly publicized suicide by bear. “She’s sad and old and ready to go,” he says, as shaky accordion and strings unfold. “I want to let her.”

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The short, which came to Rutili in a dream, looks exactly like Califone sounds: unique, heartbreaking, a bit off, yet strangely peaceful. Watching the woman melt into a lifeless puddle, it becomes apparent that intended meaning is less relevant than personal interpretation. Some critics demand an explanation for Roots & Crowns, accepting Rutili’s notion of identity'where we come from and how we become who we want to become. When asked how he feels about the album, however, he throws up a shrug.

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“Whatever the theme is kind of emerged as we were making the record'if there even is a theme. It’s going to mean something different to anyone who hears it,” he says. “For me, it means forgive yourself and move on. That’s what it means. Don’t be afraid to die and don’t be afraid to live.”

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CALIFONE
with
TOLCHOCK TRIO
Tuesday, Oct. 17
Urban Lounge
241 S. 500 East
10 p.m.
24Tix.com

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