Underground instrumentalist Phil Spirito has journeyed from one obscure band to another. His membership with rex brought him together with Chicago-based band, Red Red Meat, many of whose members -- including leader Tim Rutilli, Ben Massarella and Brian Deck -- would later form Califone. The mixture of these two bands would result in an interesting side project, Loftus. The Loftus songs were experiments in texture, mixing industrial hollow sounds and treatments with organic instruments played, plucked or struck. This would be a direction that Spirito and Rutilli would further explore in their own respective bands, contributing to a sound attributed to a particular Chicago scene. Indeed, better known bands would also adopt these textures into their music -- Iron and Wine and Wilco, for example -- sometimes employing members from Califone/Red Red Meat (who are featured prominently on Iron and Wine's excellent The Shepherd Dog).
Spirito's current project, oRSo, continues this partnership, namely with Califone's Rutilli, Massarella and Jim Becker. On Ask Your Neighbor, oRSo's first release in three years, the songs are surprisingly cohesive. There are touches of Tom Waits' swagger and gravel in the vocals, with the plucking of a tenor banjo, banjo or four-stringed mini-guitar. There are the haunting harmonies, often heard in Califone's records, creating a moody, sometimes brooding atmosphere, as exemplified in the opening cut, "All Suffer Fools." It doesn't exactly set the tone for the entire record, but one needs to listen carefully for the subtle changes. The use of space in the music creates ebbs and flows in this 12-song release.
Brightness comes from use of orchestral instruments (strings, woodwinds and horns). Instrumentalist Libby Reed lends greatly to this more upbeat side, with tenor banjo, keyboards, percussion, cello and vocal contributions.
Songs such as "Protest Song," with its chant, "Why don't we see?" and complex, multi-layered percussive beats that run underneath, comes off as oddly playful. The beautiful "To Be Held" and "The Hope" intricately blend Appalachian folk, circus music and Balkan folk, adopted by a growing clan, including A Hawk and a Hacksaw and Beirut. Hence, the songs never sound too polished (Calexico could borrow a thing or two from Spirito and Co.).
Spirito and Califone have collectively amassed an impressive and unique body of work that has forged a sound that has been increasingly recognized. Ask Your Neighbor is a fascinating collection of oddball Americana songs, something that legendary musicologist Harry Smith might affectionately term as "The Old Weird America." Except this is definitely contemporary -- a part of a growing, gnarled tree called, "The New Weird America."