Let's say I told you that Califone's Tim Rutili has had a recurring dream since his youth, involving a giant man-bird creature, and then he discovered that the creature was actually a representation of an ancient Druid god called the heron king, which the British feared so deeply that they fled the battlefield when an effigy of the heron king was hoisted above the heads of the opposing army, and that Rutili realized that he had somehow been manifesting an image of this long-dead god figure in his head since he was a child. Now suppose he goes and corrals his band, Califone, into basing an entire album around it. What do you suppose that album might sound like?
Yeah, me neither.
Had I read that tidbit before listening to Heron King Blues, I might have been even more confused, since its seven tracks display very little in the way of overt avian imagery, much less the overwhelming power of the subconscious. Instead, it cops a very inviting lo-fi vibe, kind of like Matmos-gone-coffeehouse or Beck on downers. (Oh, wait, that was Vultures. Odd how the bird references pile up...)
Fans of 2003's Quicksand / Cradlesnakes will see a lot of the Califone signatures on display once again, though this time the muted, subverted vocals seem almost appropriate given the theme. Here they float just above the junkyard funk achieved by banjo plucking, swirling glitches and multilayered organs. The entire album was recorded on the fly, with most tracks written as they were being played in an effort to simulate the immediacy of a dream -- or, as the band admits, Captain Beefheart's Mirror Man. While early tracks like "Trick Bird" and "Sawtooth Sung a Cheater's Song" lope along unobtrusively, there's a simmering power in their intricacies and a galvanic, creek-bed church effect in the hushed, mulitracked vocals. "Apple" is positively tribal in its earth tones, while "Lion & Bee", a lush backwoods hymn, smacks of the influence of Iron & Wine.
My tastes for the more percussive elements draw me to the dirty boogie of "2 Sisters Drunk on Each Other", one of the few tracks that almost seems out of place on a disc otherwise dominated by half-awake moments. It's not overpowering, but it easily dominates the stereo in that supremely confident, "we could rock you but we won't" way. Califone save the big guns for the creaky and magnificent closing title track, a makeshift opus to match the handmade idol that graces the album cover. I'm not sure if Rutili was able to exorcise his childhood demons with this venture, but it certainly makes for compelling listening for the rest of us.