Release Date: Sep 3, 2013
Record label: Dead Oceans Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Post-Rock, Experimental Rock
With Stitches, Chicago experimental rock band Califone have released their strongest collection of songs since 2003’s phenomenal Quicksand/Cradlesnakes. Recorded in Arizona, California and Texas, Stitches has the free-ranging Southern and Western sound to match the expansive landscapes that fill those very states. At the same time, it still maintains lead singer Tim Rutili’s penchant for mysterious, captivating lyrics.
The best shorthand assessment I can provide of Stitches is that the new Califone record sounds just like a Califone record. Just like a glass filled with water to its midpoint, how you look at that above sentence is going to determine your interest in this experimental rock band’s 12th album. If you are a fan, you are going to eat Stitches up heartily; if you’re not, you’ll avoid it.
Even amongst the banjo-wielding oddities that populate the stranger outposts of US music commonly referred to as Americana, Califone’s singularity of vision has always stood out. Dense, challenging and entirely uncompromising in their quest of a richly textured sound that combines the dust-racked crackle of the distant past with the digital hum of the here and now, the Chicago outfit have never failed to entice the brain. However, emotional appeal has at times been harder to come by.
For so many releases stemming from so wide a range of starting points, Califone’s body of work is incredibly consistent and consistently alluring. Even frontman Tim Rutili’s older work with Red Red Meat and Isaac Brock’s Ugly Casanova stands near the best of the past quarter-century. Stitches fits snug in Califone’s discography. After 2006’s Roots & Crowns and 2009’s All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, which were—all relative, of course—pop-leaning and melody-based, Stitches offers the subsequent degree of accessibility.
Every new Califone album seems meant to be imbibed as one would a half-bottle of brown-flavored liquor: alone, during the first deeply black hours of morning. A tired metaphor, maybe, given the band's place at the nexus of alt-country, Chicago blues, and the kind of meditative, gothic folk the Palace Brothers were peddling 15 years ago. But it's hard to imagine many other bands this dependably intoxicating.
The first long-player from bluesy, experimental Chicago-based roots rockers Califone to be recorded entirely outside of the confines of the Windy City, Stitches' ten quietly lustrous tracks dutifully reflect the arid Southwest vistas from which they were sprung. Recorded in Southern California, Arizona, and Texas, there's definitely an impressionistic, unhurried temperament behind songs like "Movie Music Kills a Kiss," "moonbath. brainsalt.
A very good and quietly unassuming band with an impressive-- but decidedly unflashy-- discography, Califone almost dissipated into the ether after the release of 2009’s reliably strong All My Friends are Funeral Singers. The band’s core member Tim Rutili spent almost a year away from Califone, committing his attention to screenwriting, scoring films and TV shows. He shed a few band members during the hiatus, but thankfully not his interest in eventually returning to Califone.
Califone’s music has always relied on blending Americana with electronic tones and sonic experimentation. Tim Rutili and bandmates typically haven’t swung from, say, industrial influences to rustic ballads, but they’ve worked various influences into a cohesive sound, even if it occasionally ended up as an off-kilter funk jam or something else. In thinking about or listening to the group’s sonic integrations, it would be easy to miss the key element in their success: the melodic songwriting at the center of their pieces.
All personal tragedy and affliction is born of the distance between the reality of what is and the imagination of what might be. Or at least it would seem that way from several listens to Stitches, the nth album from Tim Rutili’s Califone. For almost 15 years now, Rutili has been crafting avant-folk that, in its very dichotomy of the homespun and the transmundane, has appeared to play out such a fissure between the Real and what we’d like from the Real, and now, in his band’s first long-player since 2009’s All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, he’s coupled his knack for organic-inorganic eclecticism with lyrics that, employing less abstraction than in earlier incarnations, recognize problems as the deviations from the unreachable ideals that they very often are.
A photo of a bud yet to bloom—perhaps the first image that comes to my mind when listening to Califone’s new record, Stitches. If not that image, then the picture given us as the album cover: a lone, clean-angled peak with nothing but sky and clouds for backdrop. The peak bears a matchstick crown, recalling the mountain beacons in Lord of the Rings, and you wonder if this high pyre will ever be set ablaze.