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.
But ultimately, the sound of the album provides as much open-endedness as do the lyrics: in essence, the minimal acoustic guitar strums, horns and beats of Stitches’ songs don’t leave more to be desired, but make you, as a listener, want to find out more and explore the same physical and emotional territory associated with the album.
From the start, Califone don’t hold back from letting you know where they recorded their new album. Opening track Movie Music Kills A Kiss contains a tongue in cheek, old school title to match its quintessentially Americana sound in addition to Rutili’s worn-as-ever voice singing about ghosts, introducing the listener to the grey ambiguity that characterizes Stitches. The title track is even more impressive, featuring a drum beat similar to that of Yo La Tengo’s Before We Run and distant horns contrasting the immediacy and closeness of Rutili’s voice, one that, throughout the song, shares borderline stupefying words about booze and blood to mirror the hazy effect of the desert on the mind.
Yet simply, Califone aren’t afraid to challenge themselves. On the krautrock jam Frosted Tips, they challenge themselves instrumentally; hearing Rutili sing about “watching the new world die” recalls Jeff Tweedy singing that he was born to die alone, but the lack of Tweedy-like insularity and presence of wide-reaching sounds make Frosted Tips that much more inviting. You want to watch the world die with him. Meanwhile, on some songs, Califone even challenge themselves lyrically. On the wonderful Magdalene, Califone combine the religious lyricism of The Hold Steady with the bouncy piano and red wine soaked sound of The National. To hear Rutili sing about Mary Magdalene, God, and The Devil over music that actually allows him to tell his story (as opposed to Craig Finn’s often barely-audible, spitting, grating singing style) is refreshing and again adds to the biblical, borderline mythical landscape of the album’s barren location.
And what’s most impressive about Stitches is that it gets stronger as the album veers into its mid and final sections. An absolute standout track on the album is Bells Break Arms, on which minimal piano chimes combine with Rutili’s voice layered on top of itself to create what’s almost religious music, or at least the closest Califone will likely ever come to a gospel song. On the contrary, Moonbath.Brainsalt.A.Holy.Fool is the musical opposite of Bells Break Arms, its guitar pedal effects, reverb, and general distortion ultimately giving way to something even more stripped down, with twangy acoustic guitars and harmonica. By far the longest track on Stitches, clocking in at almost seven minutes, Moonbath.Brainsalt.A.Holy.Fool is not afraid to jump around a bit but always manages to do so with tasteful and sensible peaks and valleys, still managing to sound like a cohesive piece towards the end of its duration.
Ultimately, Stitches solidifies Califone as a band that have always balanced American pop music tradition well with experimentation. Here Califone get their Ghost Is Born-era Wilco on, but they also explore deeper areas of American musical tradition and feature forward-thinking musical elements and decisions, often in the same song. The tracks on Stitches aren’t just Rutili singing about Moses not making it into the promised land or, more trite, songs about payphones: they make up an entire color palette of music and lyrics, of sounds and themes, that when combined on Rutili’s canvas make up truly original territory.