All My Friends Are Funeral Singers

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Label: Dead Oceans

Though it is immediately recognizable as a Califone album, as anything featuring Tim Rutili’s voice and guitar are, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers is in many ways a significant transformation of Califone’s sound. Their albums have typically been marked by a warm, organic feel and almost impenetrable density. This album retains the sonic experimentation that has dominated Rutili’s work back at least as far as Red Red Meat’s 1997 album There’s a Star Above The Manger Tonight, but often forgoes the loamy, organic density in favor of sparser, more mechanical sounds, at times even revealing a hip hop influence.

Part of this transformation appears to result from a newfound vocal confidence on behalf of Rutili. On earlier albums, his singing was treated merely as one of many layers in an unfathomable depth of sound; only rarely do songlike structures rise above the shifting waves. Funeral Singers is an album of songs, and Rutili’s voice is used for harmony and even melody, becoming the lead instrument in nearly every one.

Part of the transformation is a new approach to production. Everything on this album, even the most abstract, layered tracks, is crisp and clear. This is not a small change; the brilliance of earlier Califone recordings lies in the way structures and relationships emerge accidentally from the interaction of seemingly thousands of parts, none of which would be particularly interesting by itself. It becomes a kind of post-blues take on John Cage’s aleatoric composition; random collisions, not deliberate juxtapositions, create the musical interest. Funeral Singers’ songcraft is far more deliberate, which makes it both more accessible and more conventional. It does not produce the sense that you’re listening to something wholly new.

This is not necessarily to say that Funeral Singers is inferior to its predecessors. The pleasures here are clearly the result of skill and craft, rather than inspiration and luck and those pleasures are significant. The way the gorgeous vocal melody of “Giving Away the Bride” is punctuated by explosions of bass noise turns what could be merely pretty into a fascinating exploration of the possibilities of pop music. “Polish Girls” covers what could be a lost Nirvana song in a blast of blues guitar straight out of “Jimmywine Majestic” before dissolving into abstraction. The hint of banjo that drifts into the background of “Funeral Singers” pulls against the pulsing guitars to create a strange kind of folk song. “Ape-like” is a foot-stomping, shit-kicking blues raveup. “Salt” gives a warped take on old-time country from somewhere between Palace Brothers and 16 Horsepower.

Many of the rest are closer to Califone’s usual turf, and they seem to confirm that the shift to songwriting and precision was a wise one. On a few early listens they seem to lack the serendipitous genius of Califone’s best. Perhaps that vein has been mined out, or perhaps it needs a longer stretch without the contrast of fully-formed songs in order to manifest its effects. Whatever the reason, it’s the appearance of intention, not the appearance of chaos, that gives Funeral Singers its best moments. This is a good introduction to Califone for those who have not arrived by way of Red Red Meat, but whether sharp songwriting and creative genre-hopping and sublime, chaotic density will stand the test of time still remains to be seen.

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