On Califone’s excellent new album, Quicksand/Cradlesnakes (Thrill Jockey), singer and multi-instrumentalist Tim Rutili once again demonstrates a deep understanding of the simple elegance of American folk music; he writes tender, homey blues-soaked songs that sound shopworn yet thoroughly contemporary. His small, bittersweet croak is sewn inextricably into the music–an ever-changing fabric of dried-out string sounds (banjo, guitar, cello, fiddle, and mandolin), rickety percussion, amp buzz, feedback, and spare electronics. The band has always been fond of unruly improvisation, but now the communication between Rutili and stringed-instrument whiz Jim Becker seems downright telepathic, as do the kit- and hand-percussion creations of Ben Massarella and Joe Adamik. The players’ ability to anticipate each others’ gestures allows them to use the most basic song structures as a starting point for their kaleidoscopes of musical colors and shapes. The group can still get too abstract, as on brief instrumentals like “Cat Eats Coyote,” but such moments are balanced by songs like the heartbreaking “Vampiring Again,” one of Rutili’s most beautiful melodies and soulful performances to date. Bassist Matt Fields joins them live, where they play with their arrangements like Silly Putty. Brokeback, which opens, is now officially a duo. Noel Kupersmith became a full-fledged partner for the recent Looks at the Bird (Thrill Jockey), and together he and Douglas McCombs composed and arranged nearly all of these moody low-end melodies. The songs are tightly structured, and the interplay between McCombs on guitar and six-string electric bass and Kupersmith on upright is seamless. Several cameos enhance the disc: there are lovely, often wordless vocals by Stereolab’s Mary Hansen and supple rhythmic reinforcement from drummer Chad Taylor. Brokeback’s music remains as cinematic as ever, but on the lovely surf ballad “Everywhere Down Here” McCombs crafts an emotional narrative rather than just setting a mood. I find some of the glitches and muffled beats a bit superfluous, but overall Brokeback has never sounded better. For this gig the bassists will be joined by drummer Tim Mulvenna and Califone’s Becker. Saturday, April 12, 7 and 10 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Chris Toliver.