Tim Rutili won't let anything be. As evidenced through 10 full-length releases from his band Califone, whatever is expected must be changed. Everything hopeful must be marred at the surface; everything poetic must be obscured; everything lovely must be stung or cut.
When the band plays the Long View Center on Saturday at Hopscotch, three longtime allies will help Rutili inflict Califone's ambient dust-pop damage: Joe Westerlund of Triangle mainstays Megafaun; Rachel Blumberg, formerly of The Decemberists, Norfolk & Western, M. Ward and others; and multi-instrumentalist Wil Hendricks, a frequent collaborator and session player in the Truckstop Records stable. As players have moved in and out of Califone's porous tour hive this summer in preparation for the Sept. 3 release of Stitches (the first Califone album in four years), the new music has grown from Rutili's ability to attract skilled players, eager to join the experiment.
Caliphone's distinctive style is shaped by Rutili's visual ear: the combined vision of a painter and a filmmaker. On 2009's All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, he merged the passions that inspired him to start a band while in Chicago for film school. All My Friends is a CD of the soundtrack for a film of the same name; it's about a seer whose family and friends are ghosts, a houseful of them, and how they destroy her life when they're about to be excluded from it. The film showed at Sundance in 2010, and the recorded music sustained a popular tour.
"That experience gave me a good taste for writing and exploring different ways to approach and subvert narrative film," Rutili reflects via email. Then Califone drifted away into a California fog. Living in Los Angeles, Rutili wrote some soundtracks, did some painting and collaborated as a player and producer with Fruit Bats, Joan of Arc, Iron and Wine and other purveyors of folk-blues-pop subversions in a compatible vein.
As for his own songwriting, "there are always ideas," Rutili says. "Finishing them can be another story." The gap between All My Friends and Stitches partly reflects a rough patch he was going through.
"These songs (recorded for Stitches) hurt a little bit more than usual because I was writing about very personal things and not really masking the songs in sounds," he says. "There were huge changes [in my life]. The shock of those changes and the way I have to relearn to feel hope and rebuild myself definitely went into these songs."
In part because of such internal searching and digging, Rutili changed his process, too. He went back to the DIY mode of the earliest Califone recordings, playing and arranging most of the parts himself.
"Writing these songs was a much more solitary process," he says. "I worked on the vocals and lyrics quite a bit more." Indeed, the vocals are pushed forward in the mix, making the lyrics crisper on some tracks and slightly less elusive than in the past.
Even as Rutili was reaching backward in his approach to recording, he found himself learning to deal with the increasing demands of social networking, blogging and online promotion since the last time Califone released an album. "It's the Wild West! We are learning to adapt and survive while keeping creative and productive," he says, perhaps coyly. He and his team have taken to Twitter and Instagram as if they were born to it, posting image after image that look exactly like the music sounds, with captions as cryptic as the lyrics.
On an innovative video for the title track "Stitches" posted to Califone's Tumblr page, fragments of curated Tumblr posts drift like ghosts across the screen, each containing a few of the song's lyrics. Clicking on "ghosts" may turn the image around so you can read the lyric, or take you to the original image or the blog quoting it. You experience it differently every time you play it.
If "Stitches" owns the visuals, a second video, "Frosted Tips," owns the viscera. Its rolling drum opening heralds a change of tempo. "Listen up," it seems to say. "Here comes a pop tune, and it will kick your hipster ass." Seditious samples poke it like mosquitos drawn to the sugar.
Delving deeper into the new album, "Magdalene" is a warm, organic waltz with a complicated story, one of several Biblical references that surface in an unsettling light on Stitches. The track also features pedal steel, played by Eric Heywood (Ray LaMontagne, Tift Merritt, The Pretenders); elsewhere, former Califone and Red Red Meat stalwart Ben Massarella turns up on two tracks. The album opener, "Movie Music Kills a Kiss," could tell the story of anyone who finds the film business a heartbreaker. Tastefully placed washes of resonator guitar limn the pathos.
Stitches is out on vinyl, and Rutili writes on califone.com that he sequenced it for sides A and B. He suggests, wryly, that vinyl sounds better: "There might be scientific reasons for this having to do with our fleshy bodies and the stress it puts on our brains to translate numbers into the imitation of sounds + I might just be talking out my ass."
At Hopscotch, expect to hear some old songs along with the Stitches material. "There are a few favorites," Rutili says. "Mostly the stuff from Roomsound (2001) is still fun to play. We had reissues of Roomsound and Good Weather [2002's Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People] this year, so a lot of those songs have been finding their way into the set."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Change is good."
Linda Ray lives in the open spaces around Tucson, Ariz., and is a former contributing editor of No Depression.