Music Reviews
Roots and Crowns

Califone Roots and Crowns

(Thrill Jockey) Rating - 7/10

These understated albums are tough to pull off. You've seen it before: a band decides to spend almost an hour in a deliberate hush, and then expects you to curl up and listen intently. That's fine. There are still plenty of self-proclaimed aficionados with time on their hands to eat this stuff up in their darkened bedrooms. In my weakest moments I'm probably one of them. But the most prevalent problem with the subdued approach is - why bother? There better be something pretty damn compelling or beautiful hidden in those breezy passages to make it worth your while. Does Califone deliver?

Sort of. Roots and Crowns is a mixed success. Califone combines eclectic acoustic instrumentation with "found sounds" and random electric elements to create a nouveau Americana/electronic hybrid that may remind you of Wilco on paper, but is a sound all their own. The "roots" here are older and steeped a little further in backwoods mystery. All to their benefit. If you'd like a cinematic point of reference, think the Blair Witch Project meets Deliverance. It's traditional, yet a little spooky.

Sounds great, doesn't it? Well yes, in the sonic department these guys get an A plus. If there's one thing Roots and Crowns does well its set a mood. But that's also its major flaw. There is a lot to be admired here in terms of songwriting, production and performance, but the mood is so unremittingly laid back that it strains the attention span. You can almost hear the band getting out of their rocking chairs for the upbeat numbers, like Pink & Sour and the excellent A Chinese Actor. So it ends up being an album that sounds like something you should love, but that you can occasionally enjoy and mostly appreciate. The distinction is subtle, but crucial.

Don't get me wrong, some of the quiet moments are indeed beautiful. Burned by the Christians is deeply affecting, as is The Orchids and Spiders House. And quite frankly, the rest is not that bad either. It's the cumulative effect that can wear on you. I will grudgingly allow that in the right frame of mind, in the right darkened bedroom, at the right time of night, Roots and Crowns may sound like a modern classic. But for most of us and most of the time, it's just a pretty good record.