Tim Rutili embraces the irrational. It's not just that he's comfortable with it. He almost relies on it. Rutili, the songwriter and singer and creative spirit behind Califone, deploys absurdism and jarring juxtapositions as part of the songwriting process as well as in the instrumental textures of his recordings. He's one part songwriter/poet with a guitar and notepad, and one part wild experimentalist, plugging bits of wire into the outlet to see it they spark or catch fire, if the machine takes off or lurches to a stop. Stitches, the latest album by Califone, was just released earlier this month, and Rutili, a former Chicagoan now living in Southern California, spoke to the Advocate from the road, somewhere between Arkansas and Nashville as he was making his way east with his bandmates, performing a series of "living room shows," intimate concerts played in people's homes.
Stitches is a perfect title for Rutili's latest effort. It conjures something sewn together from different parts, maybe something mended or recovering from a wound, but also the act of piercing, poking under the surface, something done with sharp metal. Some of the song ideas and the sounds themselves are assembled from bits of atmospheric noise that Rutili records on his phone, or from word scraps that come to him while driving around the desert. It's what he calls "just catching an idea." But the end result is somehow organic, not jarring in its odd ends. "This music is collage," says Rutili. "It's putting things that don't necessarily go next to each other to create something different."
Like that strange steel-drum-sounding ringing that accents a guitar line, the glitchy reverberating echoes that come in and disturb the surface calm of a song, or those haunting elusive lines about a "butterfly tongue" or a "paralyzed moon." In a way, sometimes what doesn't make immediate sense to us demands more prolonged consideration and attention, even if in the end there's no clear intrinsic meaning to be teased out. It's just off-putting enough to make you want to crawl up closer for a better look and one more listen. In being transfixed we're also strangely soothed.
For Rutili, the process of making art and music is spurred by grappling with fruitfully confusing contrasts. He writes in a free-associative manner, pairing words that come to mind, or others he simply likes. "Sometimes it starts with words that just feel good in my mouth," he says.
If there's a deeper meaning, Rutili doesn't always seem eager or even able to necessarily say what it is. "I don't always know how to sell what I'm doing," he says. Some songs are about protection or vulnerability. Some are about death and rebirth, retracing our steps without being stuck in what was. Rutili wants the listener to pause.
"Now it seems like attention spans are at an all-time low and people listen once and spit out an opinion," he says.
Rutili's music rewards repeated listening and sustained attention. Califone's music glows with a peculiar overlap of high-art ambition and vernacular grit. These are essentially folk songs that could be played with an acoustic guitar around a campfire, but the recordings also bristle with shrill metallic pings and surprising rattles. Fans of Wilco's experimental moments, or of unclassifiable acts like the Latin Playboys, or Will Johnson will appreciate what Rutili does with his expressive tenor, his pairings of noise with acoustic instruments and his dark poetic lyrics. (This leg of the tour features the equally excellent and hard-to-pin-down Richard Buckner on the bill, who also has a new record out this month.)
The head-nodding, lapping pulse of a tabla shows up, as do echoing piano splashes. The melodies and the chords might be soothing to sing and plunk out on a six-string, but the lyrics loom in a zone of disquiet. There are biblical portents (Jesus, Moses and others are named), whiffs of apocalypse, predatory beasts and premature demise. Blood is shed. Bones broken. Skin burned. Rutili explores that lyrical and sonic threshold of discomfort shading into suffering. Sometimes he's drawn to "the sound of something scraping against your head" or to "images and thoughts that physically hurt our bodies," he says.
As a trained filmmaker, Rutili understands the power images have, to placate or repulse, to confuse or enlighten. Rutili made music videos in the '90s while playing in his earlier band Red Red Meat. He's done work with music for TV and film as well. In 2010, Rutili had his directorial debut with All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, an experimental film that drew on Califone's music.
In Califone songs, sometimes what holds our attention is what captures us. A delicate difference between real communion and sham emotion hinges on the fluid details.
Surveillance gets mixed up with adoration. "If we die before we die/Camera eye and animal trap," goes part of the refrain on "Frosted Tips." Other songs, like "A Thin Skin of Bullfight Dust" and "Movie Music Kills a Kiss" pack poetic heft, uncoiling from their evocative titles, which are almost songs undo themselves.
"I'm interested in the idea of fate, and how you can take a thought and live it," says Rutili. "especially a thought that makes no sense."
With Richard Buckner, Tuesday, Sept. 17, Cafe Nine, 250 State St., New Haven, (203) 789-8281, cafenine.com