Tim Rutili is the collage artist extraordinaire of the indie rock rock world. In 1998, he dropped his debut self-titled EP as Califone—a full-band Chicago outfit before Ruitili began blazing his own trail following 2009’s All My Friends Are Funeral Singers and relocating to Los Angeles. His eighth album under the Califone brand umbrella digs into the same psych-inflected experimental-folk loam he’s sifted through since the Red Red Meat days of the mid-’90s.
Villagers’s nine tracks span across a wide thematic landscape like a good short story collection: A dreamy discourse with an inbred king (“The Habsburg Jaw”), an emotional portrait of a “last drug friend” (“McMansions”), and a snapshot of middle-aged goths enjoying a night of youth (“Halloween”) mark some of the highlights from this slight-but-impactful album. The junkyard percussion, Laurel Canyon melodies, and computer voice freakouts are all there from the beginning of the release. For the project’s first album since 2020’s Echo Mine, Rutili gets immediately into the musique-concrète magic he’s known for on the opening track “Habsburg Jaw,” wherein horn bleats and rattle-shake percussion blend together and dance around for four minutes. Rutili is the puppet master in the middle of the floor pulling all the levers and twisting the knobs.
The somber piano ballad “Eyelash” finds him lost in a slipstream of emotions as Rutili recounts memories of being in town for a death in the family and a friend who can’t finish a story he’s trying to remember. The lyrics are some of Califone’s finest so far, as the production-wizardry walls fall away for pure songwriting to stand alone. Rutili evokes mournful and resonant imagery on “Eyelash” with his lyrics: “We are the hangmen and the undertaker / We are the embracers and the embraced / We are the silent movies / We are the swollen tongues / And I’m waiting…”
Villagers is one of the project’s most reflective and emotionally concave releases. Whereas 2004’s Heron King Blves and 2006’s Roots & Crowns pushed Califone’s experimentation of the Americana form in brave and sophisticated ways, Villagers is a softer release rolled in AM gold honey. Backporch-folk sessions sit comfortably next to piano ballad teardrops like “Comedy,” with each song feeling like a small wonder. Combining his production prowess with input from his veteran cadre of new and longtime Califone experimentalists including Brian Deck, Michael Krassner, Rachel Blumberg, and Ben Massarella, Villagers is a ghostly time machine ticking through different eras and musical styles.