The Upshot: There be beautiful monsters here, and the Rutili-Ross team serve up new and unfamiliar sonic mutations to charm and awe us. Watch video, below, and also check the links for additional videos.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Like the pop art cover collage by artist Shane Swank, the songs on 10 Seconds to Collapse portray all manner of beautiful monsters. For creators Tim Rutili (Califone, Red Red Meat) and Craig Ross (Shearwater, Spoon, Robert Plant), these surreal folk, desert-baked blues and deconstructed pop hybrids bloom brightest where the digital — feedback, tape loops, etc. — and analog worlds collide, and where new and unfamiliar sonic mutations emerge to charm and awe us.
On 2016’s Guitars Tuned to Air Conditioners, the pair vamped off the electricity of the universe in two 16-minute-plus sides of modulated drone airbrushed with guitar parts. On 10 Seconds, that adventurism anchors what are more traditional song structures in the same reference frame; the vocals are really the only hint at authorship. Rutili sings five of the seven tracks, and what emerges here is pretty characteristic of the Califone catalog: streaks of angular feedback, cottony whorls of synths, looped noise and chopped-up percussion melting into — and emerging from — transcendent melodies and harmonies. (Fellow traveler Brian Deck had additional recording/mixing duties.)
The phrase “Ten seconds to collapse” is the warning heard just after an underground nuclear detonation, and here it’s delivered in chilling, military official-monotone to kick things off with a suitably apocalyptic portend to open Ross’ “Like a Rifle.” An explosion of chopped-and-screwed guitars and beats follows, before serrated guitar lines burst through a fuzzy haze of effects and into a loping tempo that’s fitting for a song that passes — lyrically, anyway — through Tucumcari.
The current political nightmare may color song interpretations — particularly given the duo’s penchant for elliptical lyrics — but the atom-splitting here also occurs face-to-face in addition to musically. On the elegiac “The Day Before the Peaches Rot,” Rutili builds around his familiar languid acoustic slide, keyboard drifts and EBow scrawls. The song’s “Sunday table drunks, bellowing too late, too late in the game,” may be bitching about politics or mistakes made or their former glory days (or all three), but “The terror in your smile/in every wedding picture” image that follows suggests dark clouds and future fear as well.
On “Back to the Plow,” Ross’ lyrics work equally well as Luddite warning or future prophecy, as the song alternates between sections of brutal guitar riffs and clouds of Lennon-like mellotron.
It’s not all gloomy cataclysm, though. “Choke” — probably Rutili’s most pop-friendly take since Quicksand/Cradlesnakes’ “Vampiring Again” — is a wizened love song that choogles along behind prominent bass-fuzz while the duo subverts the AM Gold-friendly format, using EBow and feedback to blow up the chorus and elliptical imagery to create a more Burroughsian narrative. Another radio-friendly cut, the Stones-y ballad “Coma Tapes,” has a heart-beat tempo and blissful harmonies from indie film actress Angela Bettis, who whispers in our ears to remind us that “there’s starlight that made you.”
The LP closes with “Little Carnivores,” which laments our habit of self-sabotage and species murder by asking, “Shall we kill something beautiful tonight?” in the slinky choruses. The song is cousin to “Tayzee Nub” from 2000’s Roomsound, including Califone co-founder Ben Massarella’s distinctive percussion touches. The last half of the nine-minute track features a looped piano chord overlaid with synth and guitar squiggles that drift in and out of the frame like microscopic organisms on a slide. “Birds are crashing into picture windows/God’s a hundred-dollar head rush coming down,” Rutili wearily intones as our place in the natural order, well, collapses it.
These days, it’s easy to conflate apocalyptic fare with its most obvious source — the racist trashcan fire atop our political system. But aiming all our disappointment there cheapens us and absolves us of the roles we play in our own personal Armageddons. These sonic explorations of Rutili and Ross may just be a pleasant way to bide time until the inevitable collapse, but you won’t find many lovelier monsters to play the string out with.