Too often, perhaps, contemporary artists mine the past in search of authenticity rather than exploiting old musics for their phantasmagoric possibilities. Heron King Blues, the third album proper by an audacious Chicago collective named Califone, is the work of men who’ve plainly heard thousands of old blues and folk songs. But Califone invoke the weirdness, the ritualism, the creak and spook of Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music without ever trying to reproduce its sound exactly.
Heron King Blues presents a ghost world wherein a nightmarish bird-god emerges from Tim Rutili’s dreams to lurk in his stream-ofconsciousness lyrics. The exceptional “Sawtooth Sung A Cheater’s Song” may begin as a rustic meditation, but gradually the conventional songform is sublimated by strafe and drone, until everything collapses into an industrial/tribal drum passage that recalls Can at their most transported.
As on last year’s Quicksand/Cradlesnakes, Califone’s twinning of roots music with an experimental imperative aligns them with their Chicagoan contemporaries, Wilco. But in fact, Rutili has been a subversive force for over a decade, beginning with the menacingly debauched Red Red Meat in the early ’90s. Red Red Meat’s mangled extrapolation of the blues (of which 1995’s Bunny Gets Paid is the best example) was rather overshadowed by that of Royal Trux, and eventually Rutili and drummer Ben Massarella regrouped as Califone in 1998.
Califone’s underappreciated career thus far has followed two parallel paths: broadly conventional albums such as Quicksand/Cradlesnakes; and looser, largely improvised collections of film scores and projects like last year’s Deceleration Two. Heron King Blues unites these two strands, orbiting between the heartbreaking acoustic sketches (“Wingbone”) and the intense, crotchety trance-jams such as the title track, wherein Rutili’s avowed desire to make a record like Captain Beefheart’s Mirror Man really makes sense.
The Beefheart comparison is especially useful since, like him, Califone understand traditions but aren’t trapped by them. So Heron King Blues is a free and forward-thinking kind of record, but also one that taps into forgotten, mythic resonances of American music without ever sounding ersatz, hokey or remotely contrived.