Califone plumbs emotional depths

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It’s almost a ritual: at the end of nearly every interview, I ask the voice at the other end of the line if there’s anything they’d like to add. Most often, the response is “No, we’re good.” Sometimes, though, that simple question will kick-start a whole new line of discussion—or flummox the interviewee, which is what happens when the Georgia Straight reaches Califone singer Tim Rutili at home in Los Angeles.

“I don’t know what to say,” he answers. “If you have impressions of the new record, then just go with those. I think that’s more important than what I have to say, or my intentions.”

All right, then.

Stitches, Califone’s 11th release, is deceptively simple on first hearing, perhaps even a slight regression for a group whose unprecedented melding of blues-inflected indie-folk and abstract noise has long been reliably intriguing. Rutili, an able guitarist, has written several of the new songs on piano, an instrument that forces him to slow down and simplify. Similarly, the band as a whole has dropped the cut-and-paste aesthetic of earlier releases in favour of structures that can be more easily replicated in live performance. But what initially seems reductive becomes more and more impressive over time: there’s an emotional depth here that goes beyond what we’ve heard from Rutili before, even if, as usual, his imagistic lyrics don’t make a lot of literal sense.

That’s an assessment the otherwise modest singer agrees with. “I think these are the best songs I’ve ever written,” he says. “Maybe everybody feels that way with their newest stuff, but that’s how this was for me. It was a struggle, and then once I hit a stride it was the best stretch of songwriting I’ve ever had in my life. So I’m really happy with this.”

There’s a darkness behind this batch of songs, as suggested by the very first lines on the record: “The ghost of you comes clear as day/Emerging from the darkroom chemicals,” from “Movie Music Kills a Kiss”. It’s a tale of memory and loss, as reflected in broken mirrors and treasured photographs, but if it’s a new telling of the same old story—the end of a relationship, followed by heartbreak and recovery—Rutili doesn’t feel able to talk about it.

“Not really,” the laconic singer says, noting that he went through “a lot of life” between the 2009 release of the album and film project All My Friends Are Funeral Singers and the creation of Stitches. He does want to make it clear, however, that he’s enjoying a creative rebirth. “With the past few Califone records, when we finished the cycle of making the record and touring, it always felt like it was the last time we were going to do it,” he says. “This time, it feels like a new beginning, and I’m excited about making another record relatively soon.”

Naturally, Rutili doesn’t want to give too much away about that next adventure, but here’s a clue: it’s got something to do with disco. More than that we can’t say, but it seems that as long as the singer can keep surprising himself, Califone will keep surprising its listeners.

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