Wednesday, October 7, 2009

This is not an album review: On Califone's All My Friends Are Funeral Singers

Note: This post began as a comment to Harry S Truman's article at Owl and Bear, but because of its unweildy length, it's here instead.

Made the long trip to Connecticut (which will get its own post) with Califone's new All My Friends Are Funeral Singers on heavy rotation, and "Giving Away the Bride" was on the mix for my daughter's wedding that occasioned the trip. All My Friends Are Funeral Singers builds and builds and, while I appreciate the high marks from Pitchfork, All Music Guide (nice writeup there), and others, I think this should have hit at least a 9 at Pitchfork. It perfects the Califone project with more than subtle variations on the whole Califone/Red Red Meat oeuvre. And, while I like much of what Mr. Tangari says, I respectfully disagree that Califone has but one song to sing. Sure, the band has defined a voice, blending cooling Studebaker radiator syncopation with ball-peen hammer percussion, found noise and odd instruments underpinned by blues-folk string virtuosity, but it's certainly not a monolithic voice, as Tangari suggests."Pink and Sour," "Krill" (Jim Becker on lead vox), and the Tangari-praised "Giving Away the Bride," on the last two albums demonstrate otherwise, along with both Deceleration projects. "Luis Bunuel" steps all the way into alt country territory."Polish Girls" is cheery even in its dark moments, with terrific pop hooks, yet it's still Califone, noise underneath, grit in the vinyl groove hissing and popping. To suggest that Califone has one song to sing is like saying, "Oh, that? It's just another Joseph Cornell box."

I also had recent Pitchfork standout picks Bitte Orca and Merriweather Post Pavilion on the trip along with my favorite road trip album, Slanted and Enchanted L&R, but AMFAFS made it into cd slot more than anything else because it gets better every time I hear it. This is the kind of CD that reinvigorates the album as a relevant form. Rutili is one of the most underrated singer songwriters in indie music, and his phrase montages build to create an atmosphere out of the ghosts of America's secret vocabulary. The fact that Pitchfork and AMG give the album essentially the same score but build their arguments highlighting mostly different songs suggests that there's more here than a very good to excellent album. This is a five-star album, a top-ten list album. I appreciate Harry S Truman's "relief," and 8.1 is a terrific Pitchfork score, to be sure, but part of me also wonders if PF penalizes Califone a point for being from Chicago, or maybe they're overcompensating for that lofty 9.2 on their debut EP. Califone's oeuvre is strong, but because this is Califone's most completely realized album so far, it merits a higher score than, say, Heron King Blues (8.4), which is nasty improv and worthy of the score, but Funeral Singers brings it all together, and so it should be scored higher.

No, this is not an album review, though it responds to one. I won't review it here because I recorded a superstition one of my students, Taylor Patterson, told me and sent it to Tim, who used some of the recording (his voice in "Krill") and references the superstition on the album (the writing spider in "Polish Girls," beautifully phrased). It's a tiny contribution, but still, it prevents me from being objective enough to write a real review.

2 comments:

owl said...

Here's my response to your response. :)

Thanks Marty, that’s an excellent response.

I agree, the Pitchfork review is full of backhanded compliments, but I’m definitely glad that an erratic writer didn’t eviscerate it on a whim instead—as they appear to have done with the new Avett Brothers album, which is loved by everyone that I know.

In general, I’m a little surprised that more people aren’t raving about Funeral Singers. I think it’s damn near perfect. Sure, it’s received high marks from pretty much everywhere, but I agree, if Pitchfork was going to like it, I was expecting something in the nines or at least high eights.

It seems like a lot of other blogs’ reviews are based upon Pitchfork’s criticisms, as well—calling it “more of the same,” etc. This makes me wonder if there’s an original thought anywhere in music blogging anymore (maybe there never was).

When only one website matters, it kind of defeats the purpose of smaller sites writing reviews. It’s part of the reason why we tend to review shows, rather than albums.

Marty said...

Thanks for the context on your relief, and your point about the Avett Brothers is well taken. I wrote that Pitchfork also treated The Black Kids poorly in my review of the Harvest of Hope festival, as they hyped them based on a Myspace page and then eviscerated them when their hype overheated industry attention. These were kids just having fun with 80's party sounds, and I was happy to note that they still are. Instead of trashing them in a review, they should have said, "Our bad. Sorry we fucked up a promising young band with our premature hype." Even that would be pretentious, but they can't pretend their attention is innocuous.