Essay: Califone's multi-media tour good for (former) band geeks and cinophiles

I wonder if I can adequately describe how excited I was to see a bass clarinet on stage when I walked into the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Mass., Tuesday night for Califone’s film/album project “All My Friends are Funeral Singers.” My thought process went something like this: “Oh WOW — this is going to be even better than the time Yo La Tengo had a french horn on stage!”

But the Chicago band’s project did more than affirm my adolescent wish for the inclusion of bass clarinets in rock bands; they created a multimedia experience that worked subtly to adjust my idea of what concerts and film screenings can do. After the event, I wondered what I had just spent my time doing — yes, I was watching a film, but equally I was at a concert. And yet, neither of those categorizations really gets at the heart of the experience.

In the last decade, entertainment — particularly entertainment that we consume through means other than our computers — has begun a paradigmatic shift. Cinema attendance is down. The music industry is suffering. Reading trends suggest that we spend more time with web pages than we do books or newspapers.

Much about this shift warrants concern, but there are interesting innovations happening as well. In the past several years, I’ve seen bands integrate live performances with film components — Dean & Britta wrote a song cycle to Andy Warhol’s screen tests, the Valerie Project re-scored a psychedelic Czech film from the 1970s (reviewed here), Shearwater partnered with visual artists Kahn and Selesnick, Books align visuals to the refurbished found sources of their albums and the Drunk Stuntmen wrote a score to accompany the 1924 silent film “Peter Pan.” Of course, there are others, and predecessors, too.

In this case, the film component is a feature-length movie directed by Califone front man Tim Rutili. It follows the stories of a fortune-teller named Zel and the ghosts that share her home. The film has a collaged quality that mirrors the band’s sound – diverse, almost braided perspectives of characters shape the narrative and the look of the film relies on multiple processing techniques, films and cameras.

Califone’s sound has a layered, collaged quality. Here, they seem to have traded their more sweeping, atmospheric pieces for, in many cases, succinct songs with fairly standard structures. The songs still maintain the distinctive, layered elements familiar to fans, but they have an almost narrative quality that complements the film.

The band appears in the film. There’s a strange reversal to the typical suspension of disbelief a person experiences when she watches a movie. In this case, the flesh-and-blood actors accompany their cinematic apparitions, projected above their heads. I found that my awareness of them as live performers shifted throughout the event. When they appeared in the film, I paid more attention to the fact that they were playing in the room. When the film’s plot required my attention, I sometimes almost forgot they were there.

The project was gracefully done. I left thinking about the boundaries of the different media they were engaging, but this line of questioning didn’t overwhelm the experience.

— Text by Meghan Maguire Dahn, photo by John Adams

Funeral Singers mp3
Ape-Like mp3

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