One of the things that first drew me to Califone's Heron King Blues is a sense that I had made a secret discovery. The music is mysterious and moody, with an unusual blend of instruments and lyrics full of strange imagery, but no real narrative. This isn't music we'll hear in the background of TV shows or movie previews. And it's not likely to become the download of the season though some of it should be. It feels like stumbling onto someone's diary, or overhearing a whispered conversation. Not all of it makes sense, but it's hard to turn away and stop listening.
The mystery and moodiness are combined with elements that propel other bands up the charts. Like Wilco, Califone echo America's folk roots. The dusty banjos hark back more than a hundred years, so that it sometimes sounds like music one might hear on, say, a cold mountain. But don't dwell on the word folk. There is also plenty of free-form jamming and looped effects, and in each track, drummer Ben Massarella pushes the music back down off the mountain with strong layered beats that often echo Chris Frantz. Like a lot of other bands on the Thrill Jockey roster, Califone flit back and forth between jazz, folk, rock and disco.
Heron King Blues was, according to guitarist and songwriter Tim Rutilli, born from a recurring dream about a giant half-man, half-bird character. When he learned that such a creature, called the heron king, existed in Druid legend and was recreated in battle by Roman soldiers to scare away the British army, he decided to put the whole haunting experience to music. To help Califone's audience better picture the title bird, the front and back of the disc feature photos of a winged creature on stilts, which Rutilli says required some sleep deprivation, a homeless ex-state trooper and his sobbing wife to create.
The disc's lyrics are littered with dreamlike imagery, a lot of it having to do with birds and battles. Each song reads like some tortured soul's dream journal, from constellations dropping water in the opening track, "Wingbone," to the grim line "bite down bite back bugs are screaming" in "Apple." These aren't songs that will strike a chord with the masses. The beauty of the lyrics is the way they slowly and subtly reveal their meaning. Who hasn't had a lovers' spat and gone to bed thinking "Wet sweet morning come kill a jealous night"? This isn't too hard to understand. However, it will take a certain amount of duress or chemical influence for something like "Bet your eyes you're a broke law/ Onions and bread" (which is sung not once, but twice) to make sense.
The Heron King feels most present in the track "Trick Bird," which conjures images
of war and includes the lyric "My trick bird/ Shoulder wing one leg." The song
is built on a twanging and percussion that sound almost like they're coming from
under water. But the gentle rhythms contrast with lyrics that create a sense
of menace, warning of something that "peels your face and wears it for a crown." As
it progresses, the music becomes more lush; instruments listed include a Turkish
violin and a shinai reed. Then in the chorus (this is one of the few songs with
a recognizable chorus) Rutilli and Jim Becker harmonize the words "enemy my" over
and over. Sounds dismal, perhaps, but it's actually melodic and nice.
Califone shake the dust off for "2 Sisters Drunk on Each Other." This is all fat beats and disco, complete with wah-wah pedal and horns. No idea what the song is about; no idea what Easter in the Philippines means. The lyrics actually sound like a befuddled man watching two sisters drunk on each other, trying to pin meaning on words and gestures that no one but the sisters understands. The hearty beats continue in the title track, a mostly instrumental jam that undulates between guitars fed through odd effects and pulses of bass and percussion. For almost 15 minutes. The song is called "Heron King Blues," but it isn't where the bird-man character lives on the disc. It hovers over the entire album, hiding in trees and bushes and whispering along with Rutilli's hushed voice, but it never fully reveals itself.