Califone - Stitches

8.5/10

Even amongst the banjo-wielding oddities that populate the stranger outposts of US music commonly referred to as Americana, Califone’s singularity of vision has always stood out.

Dense, challenging and entirely uncompromising in their quest of a richly textured sound that combines the dust-racked crackle of the distant past with the digital hum of the here and now, the Chicago outfit have never failed to entice the brain. However, emotional appeal has at times been harder to come by.

Recorded in Southern California, Texas and Arizona after band mainstay, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tim Rutili decided to return to Califone activity after a year’s break, the predominantly downbeat tones of Stitches seem to set their sights straight at the listener’s heart. Not that the album amounts to some sort of a transparent, heartstring-tugging singer-songwriter testimonial. Half the time you won’t have a clue what Rutili is on about, which is probably just as he likes it. But the occasional mood of wilful obscurity that’s descended on the less memorable sections of Califone records like a pea soup fog has lifted.

Often near-skeletal in their sparseness yet still richly orchestrated, these tracks retain Califone’s compelling air of mystery. This time, though, first-rate tunes lurk beneath the arresting atmospherics, which amount to a hypnotic head-on collision between pedal steels, horns and other signifiers of the great American music tradition and rust-flecked beats seemingly wrestled from some malfunctioning machinery teleported from the pioneer days of electronic music.

Unassuming, even uneventful at first, you’ll soon find the melodies of, for example, the stark campfire folk lullaby ‘Movie Music Kills a Kiss’ – little more than an absentmindedly strummed guitar, a few floating piano chords and Rutili’s downbeat recital about, amongst other things, ghosts emerging from darkroom chemicals – stuck on endless repeat in your internal jukebox.

Set to an unsteadily clattering beat, the quietly majestic title track is even better, with distant horn blares adding a drop of yearning to the an array of arresting if hard-to-decode lines such as “the blood went out of my hand/sucking whisky out of your hair.” The wearily swaying, widescreen slow-motion epic ‘Magdalene’, pedal steel to the fore, should have instant appeal to fans of The National, only with an unforgettably odd fable starring Mary Magdalene, God and the Devil in place of the celebrated New York band’s anxious navel-gazing.

The economic arrangements make sure that every note counts: the moment the horns kick in on the elemental ‘We Are a Payphone’ (that title alone must be worth the price of admission) is genuinely startling in its stark beauty. It’s not all about moping, either: the motorik momentum of ‘Frosted Tips’ proves that Califone can rock out, too.