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Califone - Stitches

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Artist: Califone

Album: Stitches

Label: Dead Oceans

Review date: Sep. 4, 2013

Califone - “Stitches”

Califone has always worked in the subconsciously familiar, hammering together folk memories and spare industrial parts to create altered-but-recognizable textures. Yet here on the collective’s seventh full-length, Tim Rutili seems to have taken the same approach with his words, eschewing the vivid abstractions of past work to talk more plainly about his own condition. Despite its references to Chinese opera and deep-sea divers, the album’s title track is a love song, pure and simple. “Didn’t we fit together like someone else’s sweater?” he asks, likening stitches to sutures, needlework, embroidery in the way they connect and enhance disparate beings.

Stitches, then, uses large-scale mythological imagery to hone in on concerns like love and mortality. Its lyrics are unusually direct and readable, at least by Califone standards, but infused with a collective conscious’s ghostly imprint. Here, monumental figures like Moses, Jacob and Esau and Mary Magdalene give resonance to Rutili’s queries about life’s meaning (or lack of it). In “Moses,” for instance, the prophet forever exiled from the Promised Land is a stand-in for an ordinary man’s inability to commit to a lover. Califone’s hoarse-shouted chorus of “if I let myself need you, how long before we die?” feels personally, individually true, but also archetypical and vast.

The music also has been subtly expanded, opening up Califone’s shadowy palette of acoustic folk and junkyard percussion into a fuller range of colors. “Frosted Tips,” the album’s rock song highlight (and one of a couple to feature Red Red Meat/Sin Ropas/early Califone collaborator Tim Hurley), starts in a hum and clatter and drone, but quickly builds into a horn-blaring, drum-pounding, anthemic rock song. (Though, as always, Rutili sounds like he’s just about over a mild case of strep.) Just as good, but far more stripped down, is “We Are a Payphone.” It is familiarly rueful, ruminative and receding, much in the vein of past material like “All My Friends Are Funeral Singers” but also airier, more luminous and full of clarity.

On Stitches, Rutili worked with a few people from his past – Califone mainstay Ben Massarella and Hurley – as well as a bunch of new ones. Joe Westerlund from Megafaun steps in for missing percussionist Joe Adamik, helping to construct the complex, pitch-shifted cadences that have always defined Califone . The Luyas’ Jessie Stein sings back-up on a couple of tracks, leavening the smoke-and-shadows textures of Rutili’s voice. Craig Ross (who played the monster riff on Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” among other things) guests on guitar – and shares a writing credit for eerie, string-overtone-wreathed “Bells Break Arms.” L.A. bass player Griffin Rodriguez – who is now, sadly, recovering from a serious bicycle accident – is also a big contributor to the album’s multi-layered, mournful sound. He shares a byline on two of the album’s most evocative, atmospheric tracks “A Thin Skin of Bullfight Dust” and “Turtle Eggs/ An Optimist.”

Stitches gains on repeat listens, as sounds that slipped by you the first time make their claim on your attention. (Right now, more than 10 listens in, I am noticing for the first time how good Eric Heywood’s pedal steel is on “Magdaline.”) Yet this is an album that grabs you earlier than most Califone albums, not just because the music is clearer, but because Rutili has connected mythology with something personal and deeply felt. Stitches is not a simple album, but it is fundamentally an album that most people can understand.

By Jennifer Kelly

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Heron King Blues

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All My Friends are Funeral Singers

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