Set upon the hard scrub granite slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains. Anchored in bedrock, bathed in dust, Old Californio defy easy categorization. Their country-folk tinged rock & roll; rooted, organic and expansive in spirit, traces its homegrown beginnings to a converted chicken coop garage on a forgotten street straight out of the imagination of R. Crumb. If you know, you know.
The band has released 6 albums over the course of their 16 year history; Along the Cosmic Grass (2007), Westering Again (2009), Sundrunk Angels (2011), Songs from the Sea of Cortez (2021), Old Californio Country (2022). Now with 2023’s Metaterranea, Old Californio reaffirm that they have their own vernacular to speak and a distinct tale to tell.
Led by ambling dreamer, songwriter and lead singer Rich Dembowski, whose lyrics evoke the vast rolling oak savannahs that inspire him, along with guitarist/ vocalist Woody Alplanalp, known for his inventive work with Bobby Womack, Aloe Blacc, Nels Cline, and Thomas Mapfumo, (not to mention his own solo work). Old Californio are at their heart, a conglomeration of old friends with long histories and varied pasts.
Longtime drummer/vocalist Justin Smith (Howlin Rain, The Seeds), anchors a firm rhythmic foundation, while keyboardist Jon Niemann (GospelBeach), has made a name for himself in the greater LA area as a sought after session player/arranger. Longtime bassist for the Californios, Jason Chesney (Mike Nesmith) marks his return offering an imaginative tapestry of Beach Boys-eque harmonies, while guitarist Paul Lacques (I See Hawks In LA, Chris Hillman, and Stan Ridgeway) adds his unique guitar and lap steel.
Old Californio’s lineup is again augmented by bassist Corey McCormick and drummer Anthony Logerfo both of Neil Young’s rhythm section via Lukas Nelson’s Promise of the Real. Lon Hayes and Andres Renteria contribute additional drums and percussion work respectively.
After their last release of 2022’s Old Californio Country, an album of mostly cover songs, Metaterranea marks a return to form for the band. Album opener “Old Kings Road” kicks off with the intertwining B- bender harmonies of Woody Aplanalp and Rich Dembowski. The song retraces the route of the once lost El Camino Real which runs the seam of the Golden State and is sung from the vantage point of the dive bars and old town watering holes found along the way. As Dembowski remarks: “It was the first time I really embraced the fact that Old Californio is a barroom band. But, the barroom isn’t just a bar, it’s a ritual. People actively are out there relieving their weekday. So, it's ritualistic, like religion. I wanted to speak truth to what we are, which is we're a kick ass barroom band,” he continues, “If you're listening, the lyrics are actually a little heady and we're actually singing about some heavy shit. But we don't want you to worry about that. You create these stories that are larger than life, they tell of everyday life that help you get through the week. I thought that's probably the most noble thing this band could do, is just be that.”
“Out of the folds unfolding - everything comes undone by design”, the opening line of “Come Undone” unfurls like an Origami mystery. Underpinned by Jon Niemann’s barrelhouse piano, the song speaks with an ease and familiarity which harkens back to The Band or Slim Chance. Life can be terrifying, but as Dembowski, joined here on harmony by drummer Justin Smith, explains, “And though the past has passed, it’s not behind you, The soul keeps no curfew, And where you finish everything begins, And everything else starts where you end”. It reminds us that life is for discovering, so let’s keep the wonder in mind.
“The Swerve”, along with the acoustic and understated “Timeless Things”, are companion pieces based loosely on Lucretious’ poem “On the Nature of Things”. Dembowski explains: “It speaks to the idea of we are not the center of the universe, we are particles swerving in a bigger process,” continuing, “We're made of atoms that only recycle, and we assemble into this thing that’s momentary. We’re timeless stuff given a short time before we turn back into timeless stuff. It is the idea of we're divine creatures, caught in space.”
“It’s a long and winding road we are on, I wonder where it will leave us.” “Destining Again’s” opening lyrical optimism paints a mid-tempo, country-esque picture of a future opening up before you, a journey forward in the same spirit and feel of Moby Grape’s “Ain’t That A Shame”. However, the song’s optimism is quickly belied by an inner struggle, it's not a destiny that you're waiting for, it’s what will always eternally happen. The tune opens as a simple number, sung in harmony by Dembowski and Justin Smith, buttressed by Jon Niemann’s B3 and Woody Aplanalp’s multi-faceted guitar, while Jason Chesney weaves a soaring tapestry of vocal harmonies through its end sequence.
Framed as a winsome acoustic pastoral, “Weeds (Wildflowers)", Dembowski sings of weeds as a perspective, cast out, but whimsically shrugging it off. Joined by the delicate, old-timey harmonies of Jason Chesney, the song is rounded out by Corey McCormick on upright bass and Lon Hayes on brushwork, while Woody Aplanalp’s nylon guitar flourishes and bounds through rays of optimistic sunlight.
Ragged and brash, “The Seer” is a Crazy Horse-esque stomp, opening with the line “There’s a crack in the fabric of reality through which, if you wish, you can slip”. The lyric sets the scene: we are ephemeral, temporary beings, just shades of light broken into forms, and ultimately, as sang on the chorus by Dembowski and Aplanalp, “I’m just another trick of the light, unfolding myself across time.”
“Tired For a Sea” is an acoustic and orchestral hymnal sung in baritone. Dembowski, Aplanalp and Niemann are joined by Corey McCormick on upright bass and Anthony Logerfo on drums. As Dembowski notes, “The song was originally conceived with an entirely different feel, but Corey (McCormick) came in with a bass figure that changed the nature of the tune, making it much more psychedelic. Lyrically, the idea was to keep it simple. No big words, no psychedelic stuff, just simple words that would work and describe an idea. ‘I am a river growing weary for a sea’.
A ¾ time baritone inspired in style by Fred Neil, “Just Like A Cloud” shifts between heavy dirge and amiable swing. Performed live in the studio by Aplanalp, McCormick and Logerfo, its place as the album closer is no accident. As Dembowski states on his instructions to them, “I want this to be full on jazz. I want this to be you guys expressing your musicianship. As the last lyric sings, ‘I'm going to discorporate’, you guys become all of eternity disintegrating in a jazz idiom”.
As their 6th full length release over a 16 year history, Metaterranea affirms Old Californio as a band existing in a consistent state of musical evolution. Its line-up recurring yet flexible, its sound familiar yet unexpected, its roots in earth