What sets singer/guitarist Rutili -- and his other ex-Red Red Meat pal, percussionist Ben Massarella -- apart from the rest of the banjo-wielding hipsters is the way they marry loops and electronic whirrings with more traditional instruments. That complex musical sport -- juxtaposing tender machinery with the plinky-plank of old-timey strings -- has reached a zenith on Califone's second LP, Quicksand/Cradlesnakes.
But the melding of old and new is not why Rutili should get his wings. I'm nominating the musician for a VIP parking space in the arty-country pantheon of gods (current population: M. Ward) because of this lyric: "Our sex became a boxer who moved in next door retired" (from "When Leon Spinx Moved Into Town").
It's the kind of line that makes me want to be an artist, so I can construct little dioramas about love and then light them on fire and make paintings about loss from the ashes. And Quicksand/Cradlesnakes is awash in such verbiage, sung in Rutili's slurred and dusty voice.
Best of all, despite the strikingly odd lyrics and potentially pretentious pairing of high-tech with high-and-lonesome, Califone's overall vibe is subtle and unshowy, achieving a near-seamless sort of soft-rock beauty. Tracks like "Vampiring Again" have melodies as inevitable as Eagles songs, but without all that feathered hippie hair. Even when the group tries to get weird and clanky ("Cat Eats Coyote"), it ends up sounding sweet -- like the dark nocturnes of hillbilly angels, loosed among us mortals for a limited time.