Tim Rutili’s beloved experimental folk band Califone turned 25 this year. Picking up the pieces from Rutili’s previous band, the alt-rock leaning Red Red Meat, the first iteration of Califone contained many of the same elements of RRM, including several band members contributing at different iterations over the years. The one mainstay has been Rutili, though frequent collaborators Ben Massarella and Rachel Blumberg have consistently been a part of the roster.
With their ninth album villagers, Rutili returns to the bare bones songwriting he’s come to be admired for. A one-off collaboration from back in 2018 with Craig Ross called 10 Seconds to Collapse feels more like a bridge between 2013’s under appreciated Stitches (which completed a decade-long impenetrable marathon of classics) and villagers, something 2020’s challenging dance-piece inspired Echo Mine lacked. Echo Mine was a welcome return, but it showcased another part of Rutili’s interests, and it landed directly before the pandemic started, stifling any momentum it could have gained.
Retiring back to the old Califone ways isn’t a bad thing in the least though. Each minute of villagers feels like home. Comfortingly warm folk split like firewood by piercing experimental segments is what we’ve all come to appreciate and look forward to on a Califone record.
Rutili’s imaginative lyricism still flourishes with tongue-in-cheek playfulness. On the near-eight-minute centerpiece “mcmansions” he sings lines like “sunrise bakes you / in a pie / creates you then forgets”, while elsewhere, on the title track, he sings about how “sleepwalking with the jackals / expanding on the fractals / a diorama shatters”.
One thing is immediately apparent this time around though, from the moment Rutili comes into focus on “The Habsburg Jaw”, is that this is an aged Califone; perhaps weathered but not beat up or flat out exhausted. Rutili’s age isn’t the factor here, he still hits the notes with his raspy vocals just like he did on 2001’s Roomsound, but he’s harmonizing in softer melodies. The man’s been cranking out various forms of art like paintings, film, albums for RRM and Califone, not to mention countless collaborations like the Isaac Brock-fronted band Ugly Casanova, for over half his life.
This all seems to influence villagers in different ways than one would have expected. “The Habsburg Jaw” references the unusual jaw formation caused by inbreeding, possibly a funny jab at the hillbillies creating havoc today via their outdated religious beliefs. The naturally empathetic Rutili has always prioritized progress in everything he’s a part of, whether it be his multiple expressions or his conversation.
Califone as a whole has always incorporated these various forms on Rutili and company’s palette, blurring the lines between genres with sometimes harsh brush strokes of rackety guitars like he does on “ox-eye” just as it begins to build. This doesn’t hinder at all, instead it nourishes “ox-eye” into something more beautiful than expected. Horns and pianos erect barriers for Rutili’s “Sunday Sunday / found my heart / found my heart” before it woos us with his signature noisy finale.
“Comedy”, on the other hand, depicts that weathered Rutili voice profoundly. He comes across as sincere and hopeful despite the words he’s throwing at us, “comedy is the blood in your mouth.” But throughout the swirling brass, the jazzy horns, and the smoke-filled aura, “comedy” finds Califone sounding right at home with this aesthetic, it’s one of the album’s strongest cuts as a result.
This draws a stark contrast to the penultimate track “skunkish”, which finds Califone sounding like old Califone again, circa Roots & Crowns, the album often cited as their masterpiece. There’s nothing rehashed, but it’s almost indescribable how Califone can sound new and old at the same time. This is a talent of Rutili’s that he’s been perfecting with each album and villagers may not hit the feels like All My Friends Are Funeral Singers did, but it’s nonetheless a prime example of an impeccable songwriter still operating at a consistent high.