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. While Califone’s latest album Stitches wanders into mildly abrasive territory at times, it mostly shows the band again centering more on folk influences, building around basic songs rather than overly worrying the electronic work. In doing so, they’ve played to a strength in making their best album in some time.
“Frosted Tips” provides the album’s high point. Its intro misdirects the listener, and the song turns out to be a chugging rock song. It’s still well-textured, and the instrumentation and slight effects make it distinctly Califone. The “watching the new world die” refrain develops an almost joyful apocalypticism that turns out to be more personal than eschatological, even if St. John and his beard make an appearance. There’s a grind to the the song that drives a catchy melody and memorable backing.
“Moses” moves slowly and shows the band’s skill in optimizing unused space. The track is largely a simple acoustic affair, aided by strings. The song rides on a single note plucking, turning the few chordal progressions into resonant focus points for an airy number. The band’s rarely that straightforward, though (and perhaps that’s part of what makes “Frosted Tips” and “Moses” work so well). The following number, “A Thin Skin of Bullfight Dust”, builds on the tone of “Moses”, but does so by utilizing an electronic drumbeat for the melody to sit atop. It’s a pretty song, and over the course of nearly six minutes, Califone does their best to run noisy sandpaper over it, turning it into a better song. The melodic core remains, but the song grows in texture and distinctiveness.
That the next cut immediately opens with a basic acoustic guitar riff suggests that Califone’s getting back to a basic orientation, which they do, but with enough stray tones and ambient textures that “We Are a Payphone” never settles comfortably, no matter how restrained Rutili’s vocals stay. If that’s not enough, we get just some stray horn flourishes.
Opener “Movie Music Kills a Kiss” doesn’t quite prepare us for any of this experimentation. That song, except for its outro, wouldn’t be out of place on a number of indie-folk records, or maybe even a Richard Buckner song. It does have plenty of little complexities, though, and a steady build that leads in nicely to the more digital and expansive opening of the title track.”Stitches”, and the album that shares the name, doesn’t offer the experimentation an abrasion of some of Califone’s other work. It’s more direct in many places, but finds a power in that directness that has led some of the band’s best music.