Sylvan Esso & Collections Of Colonies Of Bees – “Funeral Singers” (Califone Cover)

Y’all ever listen to Califone? If not, you should really rectify that immediately. Tim Rutili’s deconstructed folk-rock project produced some of the most beautiful and inventive underground sound of the past couple decades, winning a small but devoted audience and arguably laying the blueprint for fellow Chicagoans Wilco’s masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Over the years I’ve taken to calling it neon junkyard folk-rock; you can practically hear dirt, metal, and eerie glowing substance intermingling in the fabric of the music.

I recommend Quicksand / Cradlesnakes or Heron King Blues, but really you can’t go wrong. Might as well check out some of Rutili’s work with Red Red Meat while you’re at it. But perhaps due to circumstances you’ll choose to start with 2009’s All My Friends Are Funeral Singers.

See, the members of North Carolina electro-folk duo Sylvan Esso and Wisconsin post-rock outfit Collections Of Colonies Of Bees are Califone fans, and they’ve covered that album’s quasi-title track, “Funeral Singers.” According to a bio by writer Josh Modell, the two groups began covering the song together on tour and decided to record it for posterity — at the Wilco loft, fittingly enough. They’ve done a fantastic job with it, though to be fair it would be hard to ruin a song this nakedly beautiful.

Listen below, where you can also read the full backstory.

Take it away, Josh Modell:

The distance between Sylvan Esso’s crisp electro-pop and Califone’s dark, shambling indie-folk is shorter and more direct than it might seem. And the cover you’re about to hear — go ahead and click — of Califone’s “Funeral Singers” will quickly make clear that two disparate worlds have been deftly bridged, and that there is peace in the valley. This new version is faithful to the original in ways, gorgeously different in others.

The song is also bigger than Sylvan Esso’s core of Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn: It began as a spontaneous collaboration with the duo’s recent tour openers Collections of Colonies of Bees, a fun lark to play as an encore together. But their version of “Funeral Singers” immediately revealed something bigger and deeper, which makes sense: The relationship between the bands goes back a long way. Sanborn was briefly a member of Collections, whose evolving, revolving staff centers on Chris Rosenau — an old friend of Sanborn’s and a founding member of Justin Vernon’s Volcano Choir. Volcano Choir brought Sylvan Esso out on their first tour. And Sanborn’s other band from his Milwaukee days, Decibully, opened for Califone — a band that inspired everybody in this equation. You could practically hear the click.

So it became imperative to capture “Funeral Singers” for posterity, and Wilco — another definite but not-exactly-obvious influence on these bands — opened the doors of their home studio, The Loft, at the last minute so that this intimate little opus could be properly committed to tape. Califone’s original, from 2009’s All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, is spare even by that band’s standards: Singer and chief songwriter Tim Rutili plays a rickety acoustic and pulls his words from down deep in his chest, half-slurring his impressionistic tale of giving up but not giving in. A banjo and some half-heard background voices give it color, but it’s unmistakably dark.

Sylvan Esso and friends neatly removed the original’s shaggy five o’clock shadow with an electronic razor, adding a bass throb and nimble rhythmic tones—but kept the warm sound of an acoustic strum at the fore. Also right up front: Meath’s gorgeous voice, which has proved time and again that it can start the party or bring it to its knees—whatever she’s in the mood for. This version injects the original’s gorgeous, soul-bearing resignation with a little more hope: Tim Rutili’s suicidal lighthouse keeper will eventually make the leap, hers might fight off the demons for good.

It’s a neat trick that this spontaneous assemblage of musicians pulled off: They took a little song out of its dusty box, shined it up, made it huge, then somehow willed it back into the tiny emotional woodshed from which it sprang. “Return, return, return to me,” it pleads. In Sylvan Esso’s hands, it’s found a new home.