CALIFONE with BROKEBACK at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), tonight (Thursday, April 17). $10. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
Don't be surprised if your high school mug shot turns up on the cover of the next Califone album. Tim Rutili, half of the Chicago creaky indie rock-blues outfit's core, is fascinated by the storytelling potential behind old photos. The kid grinning from the sleeve of Califone's 2000 self-titled EP is Rutili himself, beaming beatifically during his First Communion. The group's newest effort, Quicksand/Cradlesnakes (Thrill Jockey), features a hilarious late-70s prom photo, replete with feathered Farrah Fawcett dos and pearly white Stetsons.
But these swingin' teens are all strangers, says Rutili during a lunch break at his Chicago label headquarters, since he snagged the pic in a second-hand shop.
"I go to thrift stores a lot, and I always pick up other people's high school yearbooks. I just love that picture. There's really not too much behind it. The people's faces are priceless; they tell this weird story that could just be anything."
The dude's talent for reconstructing stolen histories is clear from the tunes on Quicksand/Cradlesnakes. A painstakingly crafted collection of rickety blues-infused twang-rock snapshots, the album sounds like it was constructed by rummaging through junk shops for randomly beautiful bits of forgotten sonic narratives from a slew of folk-focused genres. Anchored by musical partner Ben Massarella's idiosyncratic driving percussion (Rutili claims the guy can get a sick beat out of a cup of ice and a squeaky straw), Rutili's cryptic, thoughtful lyrics twine around melodic backbones to create shockingly vivid images that make every song freakin' hypnotic.
If there's any trend in the varied narratives on the album, it's that Rutili likes to give voice to the doomed underdogs of the world.
"While I was writing Stepdaughter," he explains, "I kept thinking about the peripheral characters in Snow White -- particularly that woodcutter, that poor guy, the one who brings the wicked stepmother a deer's heart. I just imagined him waiting for his execution 'cause he screwed up. It's a great story, and all of these stories are in our bones."
Back in the 90s, Rutili was a member of Windy City blues-rock innovators Red Red Meat, who dissolved after the poorly received There's A Star Above The Manger Tonight. He recruited his remaining Red Red compatriots and a revolving cast of characters to record Califone's 1998 debut EP, which he released jointly with Flydaddy and his own Perishable label.
Since then, the nebulous band (Rutili and Massarella are the only constants, although the current lineup's been stable for the past year) has received tons of critical praise, but their fragmented, envelope-pushing sound keeps Califone below the radar.
"We all thought the last Red Red Meat record we made was great," insists Rutili. "You can't really worry about what people are gonna think and how they're gonna react and whether you're gonna get away with this, 'cause it's not like we're doing a Celine Dion record or gonna sell out Vegas for two years straight."
So you're not gonna sell out and aim for a Britney-scale three-ring extravaganza?
"We're really homely middle-aged men. So we can't shake it. Banjo and little underpants don't go together. It'd be hilarious. We thought of wearing KISS makeup and playing this weird twisted kinda countryish music while sitting in chairs, but even that'd be a stretch. But the underpants thing? That wouldn't be a pretty sight."email@example.com