At about the seven-minute mark of the title track from Califone’s Heron King Blues, you will begin to hallucinate. Don’t fight it. It first happened to me as I was driving, and I had to pull my car to the side of the road to avoid a wreck. I was in another place, polluted by odd sensations.
There is so much happening on Heron King Blues, even during the simplest moments. When lead vocalist and chief songwriter Tim Rutili sings alone, it sounds like harmonizing (sometimes it is). A cello shares the sonic landscape with a wurlitzer so inconspicuously that one must be reading the liner notes to catch it. What sounds like the distant clanging of a packed garbage bag of recyclables becomes a fast approaching army of pots and pans. Live instrumentation, loops and programming are fused together until the differences among them vanish. What is happening is much more than a mastery of musical forms; it is the harnessing and control of sound.
Play this record softly in one room and listen to it from another room. It will not make sense. The singing will seem hesitant or bashful. The songs will feel directionless, or not like songs at all. You may lose interest. This is a record to be listened to closely. Each speaker will demand full possession of an ear, and each ear will be told something slightly different from what the other is hearing. The record knows this, and it tucks itself away, deep inside a menacing, thorny thicket, far from distraction. The place where it exists contains an exit portal as difficult and undesirable to discover as the entry was. This music may own you entirely if you get too close.
“Wingbone” introduces the record with the line, “Fill my belly with your whispering.” The line seemingly calls out to the inspiration for this collection, a half human-half bird entity planted into Rutili’s dreams by the ancient Romans, and Rutili sings it as though recently awoken from a refreshingly debilitating slumber. “2 Sisters Drunk On Each Other” commingles metallic mid-tempo percussion, lyrics like, “Red foot cold floor / You’re the root / You’re the hanging tree / You’re Easter in the Philippines,” and sneering brass on a perspiring wade through gator-ridden swamps. “Trick Bird” supplements a cozy organ with (among many other instruments) the plucking of a Turkish violin and something referred to as a shinai reed, and yet the piece could easily be described as minimalist. The effect is that of a body at rest, continuing to work but not making a racket.
Some music is pieced together over months or years, and is developed with mathematical precision. Other music is so spontaneously formed it is as though it always existed in the air around us, waiting to be gathered and molded into song. Heron King Blues is that rare recording that interweaves the finest characteristics of both approaches. There is a staggering array of disparate sources, yet no sound is out of place. Even so, this record was a product of the absence of planning, only the twisted imaginings of one man providing the framework for creation. The mystery of its existence can be explained conveniently in religious terms or in more depth scientifically, but you may just want to appreciate this record without contemplating the “why” or “how.” You’ll also want to leave a trail of breadcrumbs for when you’re done.