(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Recording review - Califone, Stitches (2013)

A search for meaning finds only an occasional touch of chaotic noise

As the famous phrase goes, some men just want to watch the world burn, not necessarily out of malevolence, but sometimes because they never let themselves hope for anything more. On Califone’s new album, Stitches, front man Tim Rutili makes this explicit on “Frosted Tips”: “In the old, watching the new world die.” His voice is resolute, if a bit detached; swept along by a powerful tide, all he can do is observe. By the end of the tune, he seems to be pleased about the impending destruction. The song rides through a glitched out interlude before he closes on a memento mori mantra, “Bee-stung lips, your frosted tips are never growing out.” Like many of the other tracks, the tune appropriates a ton of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot vibe, mixing a forthright simplicity with undercurrents of chaos. In this case, driving alt rock is tempered with an acoustic folk aesthetic and crowned with a messy aura of low-fi psychic noise. For better or worse, “Frosted Tips” serves as a high water mark for the album, with an energy that is unmatched by the other songs.

The rest of Stitches is more introspective, preoccupied with a need to make sense of things, like relationships, morality, or life itself. Califone’s folky Americana foundation clings to the hope that an explanation is possible. The songs are carefully arranged, generally leaving things sparse enough for a pattern to emerge. Instead, ambient and chaotic elements bubble through, denying any simple answers. That mix of low-key structure and mild sonic sabotage is what makes the album interesting and evocative. On “Movie Music Kills A Kiss”, Rutili tosses out observations in a laconic tone like Jeff Tweedy or Tom Petty. Thematically, it’s as though he’s trying to find acceptance by telling himself the story of their breakup yet again: “The ghost of you comes clear as day/ Emerging from the darkroom chemicals.” The guitar provides the glue for layers of unrelated instrumental gestures. A scattering of piano notes, an occasional ponderous bass note punctuation and faintly ringing organ fall together almost accidentally, suggesting the bones of a deeper narrative. Tellingly, there is no real resolution. Instead, a niggling organ line persists like a fact that still refuses to fit.

On the title track, a mechanical rhythmic foundation is dressed in pensive washes of organ, but the song is partially eclipsed by a background of buzzing static and a cicada chorus of humming. It feels like a defensive move, the band using the distraction to blunt the trauma of failure as Rutili helplessly recounts a codependent tale of loss: “Trying to stop/ Taking it out on you/ Cut the connection/ Just to stitch it together again.” Much like his relationship, the song seems to lose energy and fade before it reaches any firmer conclusion.

The search for meaning continues through the album, with rueful regret and references to Mary Magdalene and Moses, but it’s not until Califone embraces mystery that they come closest to finding peace. “We Are a Payphone” falls into a mellow jam with a percussive guitar part that meditatively repeats. Rutili sings like a reflective Paul Westerberg, quickly getting to the fundamental question of the album: “Is it too late to turn this around?” But the lyrics turn more oblique and philosophical as he sings, “We’re the horses wrist with/ Scratches on the record/ We are a payphone waiting.” I’ll be the first to admit I’m not enlightened enough to grok these lines, assuming I heard them right, but somehow they still offer a hint of meaning. They suggest that we don’t know who we will connect with or why, but that it’s our purpose to make a connection. The calm guitar strum slides into a trippier bridge which features glowing shards of electric guitar in a Pink Floyd groove.

It’s telling that the two best tracks on Stitches, “Frosted Tips” and “We Are a Payphone”, are the outliers. Whether the album as a whole holds together is probably in the ears of the beholder. I liked Stitches well enough, but after a couple times through, I found myself reaching for Wilco instead.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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