Okay, it's official: Tim Rutili has earned a spot in urban-hillbilly heaven. Over five years, Rutili and his band, Califone, have outdone themselves, crafting a hallucinatory, moonshiny sort of folk music that pilfers from Americana's attic without ever feeling like a period piece. 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. We're 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 listeners want to be artists, so they can construct little dioramas about love and then set 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. Even when the group tries to get weird, it ends up sounding sweet -- like hillbilly angels, loosed among us mortals for a limited time.