Intimate timbres—garage sale drum machines, slack guitar strings, hushed vocals—offset the album’s cinematic inclinations. The listener moves through a landscape of Old Testament blood and guts, spaghetti Western deserts and Southwestern horizons, zeroing in on emotions and images that cannot be glanced over. Motes of dust dance briefly in afternoon sunlight.
“This is the only record I’ve made in my life where none of the work was done in Chicago,” says Califone’s Tim Rutili. The writing and recording began in Southern California, then continued in Arizona and Texas. “Those dry landscapes and beaches and hills and shopping malls all made it into the music,” he acknowledges. Uniquely homespun elements are interwoven into the songs, too, including sounds Rutili recorded in his backyard during rainfall and while driving in his car.
Brass, pedal steel, and strings color in the edges and outlines songs like “Frosted Tips,” “We Are A Payphone,” “Moonbath.brainsalt.a.holy.fool” and “Moses,” yet Stitches is no Ennio Morricone-meets-Cecil B. DeMille pastiche. Gritty electronics, the mesmerizing thrumming of tablas, and eerie keyboards also pepper these ten new selections. A cartographer could spend lifetimes mapping the terrain of Stitches.
Archetypes and mythological figures rub shoulders with bruised civilians throughout this odyssey. Though Rutili is not a religious man, episodes from the Bible in particular kept entering his psyche as he wrote. “I’m fascinated with why some stories and characters resonate and last for thousands of years, and are so easily transposed onto all our lives and rites of passage, no matter how absurd or surreal they are.”
Rutili has not been idle in the years since the release of Califone’s critically acclaimed 2009 album All of My Friends Are Funeral Singers. He wrote scripts and painted and collaborated on the music for several films, including the score for the 2012 documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing and the Starz TV series BOSS. He lost a few band members and stopped all Califone activity for about a year. “Then one day I woke up and started writing songs again.”
At first he churned out a lot of songs that didn’t make the cut. He kept moving. The larger themes that would eventually reach fruition on Stitches began to emerge. “During this process, I started to really look at myself and find a clearer, more honest voice,” he reveals. “I forced myself to write as much as possible. I allowed myself to be crabby and vulnerable as much as I could stand it… and slowly the songs got better.”
Eventually Rutili commenced recording with Griffin Rodriguez in Los Angeles, Michael Krassner in Phoenix, and Craig Ross in Austin, along with a raft of guest musicians. “We treated each song as its own particular planet. Bringing in different people and recording in different places helped bring some tension to the whole thing. I wanted this to be a more schizophrenic record, stitching together conflicting textures and feels.” Rutili’s old Red Red Meat colleague Tim Hurley stayed with him for a few months and they recorded together for the first time since Califone’s eponymous 1998 debut EP.
In some regards, Stitches harks back to those earliest days of Califone. There was more home recording, and musicians came and went as the songs dictated. “It was a much more solitary process, and that freed me up to feel less self-conscious about singing and writing more personal lyrics.” Yet the ultimate outcome sounds like the work of an artist reborn. “I tried to keep the songs visual and poetic, but it was more important to allow myself to feel and be vulnerable and not hide in the music,” Rutili says. “Instead of writing from my balls and brain, this time I wrote from the nerves, skin, and heart.”
Stitches—the word and the album—can mean different things to many people. Your own interpretations are welcomed and encouraged.