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A Review by Andy Plank, Guest Columnist

Thousands of years ago a young cave man, in a deep and silent sleep, awoke from a nightmare in which a monstrous half-bird half-man chased him over the foggy green planes of the untouched British countryside. He related the story of The Heron King to his tribal peers, and they took it to be a warning sign from God. Some odd years later, our barbarian friend is a husband and a father and is fighting a brutal battle against the expansion of the Roman Empire into his native land. The Romans slaughtered the young man’s tribe when they heard the tale of The Heron King and dressed a soldier in makeshift Heron King costume before charging on the superstitious natives. Creepy stuff. Typical “ancient legend” material.

Tim Rituli, formerly of Chicago’s erratic Indie-Blues legend Red Red Meat, had a similar recurring dream only a couple of months ago. Brushing up on his obscure Roman and British history, he found his imagined Heron King was the same as the above. Maybe its some kind of foreboding sign that Rituli and his contemporaries in Califone are setting themselves up for critical slaughter with such an out-there premise for what is only their second full-length LP (after 2003’s “Quicksand/Cradlesnakes”). Maybe they will be violently slaughtered, literally. Maybe Rituli should stop popping painkillers and falling asleep with PBS on. Not in the opinion of this critic !

Heron King Blues so far is one of my favorite indie releases of 2004. The album is a densely layered and surreal combination of traditional American folk sounds, avant-garde tape looping, innovative percussion, and, believe it or not, very catchy choruses. Its not too often an album as musically and conceptually challenging as Heron King Blues is also the kind of album that can get stuck in your head. The only comparison I can make is perhaps Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” or the hushed, rustic whispers of Sam Beam’s Iron and Wine albums.
Beware listeners, just because you’re fond of Wilco or indie folk or folk music in general, Heron King might not be for you. After five songs worth of dense experimental blues and folk, a dirty and simple beat boils up seemingly from nowhere. The last two tracks on the album, “Two Sisters Drunk on Eachother” and the title track, take on a skronk-and-squeel, free-jazz feeling that reminds me of the Talking Heads. And yet the entire album fits together into a smart and uncompromising vision.

Califone recorded the album in a matter of days. They decided to enter the studio with a totally blank canvas, and write the songs on the spot, or totally improvise and record them. The sounds were looped and taped together to create Heron King Blues. Thrill Jockey Records has got another talented and sophisticated act on their hands for the coming year. Along with anticipated new releases from Tortoise and The Chicago Underground Orchestra, Thrill Jockey is poised to have another incredible year in independent music.

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