Calexico is a little town sitting (believe it or not) directly on the California-Mexico border. Back in the good old days, before the border was lined with machine gun, toting guards and man eating dogs, the tiny towns of Calexico and Mexical actually overlapped one another and you could stroll down the main street and have a burrito and cerveza with your neighbours without having to show your passport and get strip-searched.
John Covertino and Joey Burns, rhythm section of Giant Sand, and members of OP8 and the lounge-y Friends of Dean Martinez have formed yet another band whose name perfectly exemplifies the type of music it makes. Calexico takes you on a musical journey through the southwestern U.S. and south of the border. This is music you won’t hear in San Diego, but you will if you travel a few miles south, to Tijuana and beyond. Calexico decided to combine the southwestern feel of the Sonoran desert with their old world, spaghetti western arrangements.
The result turned out to be some kind of mariachi tinged sound track that Ennio Morricone would have scored on peyote in the early 60's to a young Cormac McCarthy screenplay.
Jelle Kuiper (sound):
Jelle Kuiper (sound):
"Feast of Wire", CD/LP
One of the defining moments of FEAST OF WIRE, the fourth official full-length album from CALEXICO - notwithstanding their tour-only CDs - comes late on. Ghostly, eerie sounds of pedal steel drift though "Whipping The Horse's Eyes", the kind of moment often associated with CALEXICO, a vision of a land handed down over the years through literature and more recently the cowboy movies that many our generation were raised on. And yet as the song draws to a close, it is replaced by a new sound in which the dark sky is replaced by the darkness of a club interior as the band breaks into the Gil Evans-esque groove of "Crumble", whipping themselves into a frenzy (hear Joey's whoop of joy halfway through). It's an extraordinary moment, an effortless switch of styles that encapsulates two harshly contrasting visions of America's musical history. And it highlights how CALEXICO's vision of Americana - a word that is too often bandied around as a kind of lazy shorthand for music that offers a 'twang' - redefines that very concept by stepping beyond the boundaries of alt.country (with which the word is normally associated), instead drawing upon the whole of America as a resource with which to colour their impressionistic portrait of their land.
Joey Burns and John Convertino - the heart and soul of CALEXICO, though not necessarily in that order - have every right to be well versed in the mythology of the American Dream. They base themselves in Tucson, Arizona, a city surrounded by both mountains and desert, drenched nightly in golden sunsets, divided by a railroad that runs past the legendary Hotel Congress where they played many of their early shows, served by cantinas as much as city brokers, the heartland of the mythical American West and yet also home on the outskirts of the city to an extraordinary graveyard for old US fighter jets, itself a signifier of the clash between the old and the new. But this place, a short drive from the Mexican border, is just that: a base. John and Joey have spent years on the road as journeymen musicians, first as the core of Giant Sand, with whom they have played for over a decade and of which they are still a central part, backing other likeminded musicians - Evan Dando, Richard Buckner, Victoria Williams, Neko Case, Lisa Germano - and, since 1996, as CALEXICO, named after a border town between California and Mexico. Touring constantly right across the US for years, the road is a second home, and their vision of this huge, sprawling country exerts a massive influence on the music that they perform. In the same way as the land itself seems to offer few restrictions, so CALEXICO refuse to restrict themselves.
"Washed my face in the river of empire, made my bed from a cardboard crate..."
Right from the outset, FEAST OF WIRE is an album that focuses as much on the personal as the mythical, although in so doing it often transforms the average human endeavours of its subjects into part of the myth. "Take the story of carpenter Mike, who dropped his tools and his keys and left and headed out as far as he could, past the city and gated neighbourhood," sings Burns in opener "Sunken Waltz", before concluding "He slept 'neath the stars", merging the individual and his surroundings in a manner which defines the album's grand theme. But it's not a battle between the two, making the strangely poetic suicide of "Not Even Stevie Nicks…" even more resonant. "With a head like a vulture and a heart full of hornets, he drives off the cliff, into the blue…"
Clearly this kind of writing strikes a chord with CALEXICO's audience, which has grown to extraordinary proportions in both the US and Europe (a continent which has welcomed them ever increasingly the more they have returned there). Top Ten in Greece, capable of selling out London's Shepherds Bush Empire, with sales of over 100,000 copies of their last album Hot Rail in Europe alone, CALEXICO are something of a phenomenon, and much of this is due to their extraordinary live reputation, developed over those years on the road. Whether they play as a duo, with a pick up band from whichever town they find themselves in, with their current revolving line up of American and German musicians (which includes steel pedal player Paul Niehaus, also known for his work with Lambchop) or with Mariachi Luz De Luna (with whom they performed at Time Out's Gig Of The Year 2000), CALEXICO display a magical ability to create an ambience which shifts from brooding atmospherics to celebratory fiesta in an organic and often improvised fashion. On FEAST OF WIRE they have taken these skills and used them dramatically to refine a formula that worked to great effect on their previous material, but that only hinted at what was to come.
Joey Burns and John Convertino are the kind of musicians who make it look so painless that it's inspiring. There are more than a few members of CALEXICO's audience who would happily spend the entire show watching Convertino's loving brushstrokes and declare him the most imaginative drummer in music today - probably because he plays the drums as others would play the piano, like an instrument rather than a kid's toy. Check the beat he offers for "Attack El Robot! Attack", which quite frankly sounds like the kind of breakbeat that DJ Shadow uses to devastating effect (leading us to recognise that it offers the same fluid but rhythmic quality of David Axelrod's finest work.) Burns meanwhile has developed a vocal that echoes the tremulous sound of his guitar, a yearning, intimate delivery that shimmers like heat above a desert road. Check his gorgeous falsetto on the tragically resolved and intriguingly titled "Not Even Stevie Nicks…" or the perfectly understated "Quattro (World Drifts In)". Meanwhile the arrangements and songwriting skills see the two of them constantly but confidently seeking to challenge themselves as they travel across a vast musical landscape, never quite restless but never stopping long enough to become jaded. Some songs are little more than nuggets, brief but generously evocative, others are more ambitious and dramatic. From "Quattro (World Drifts In)"'s graceful swoon to "Gьero Canelo"'s Hispanic joy, from the Tom Waitsian junkyard sounds of "Attack El Robot! Attack" to the noir-ish strings of the tense "Black Heart", from the Debussy / Satie- influenced "The Book And The Canal" right through to the melodica-drenched "Dub Latina" (a classic example of their melding of different styles), from the playful rhythms of "Pepito" to the intimacy of "Woven Birds" and the closing atmospheric sunset of "No Doze", it's a musical road trip that seems to cover back roads, highways and metallic cities, and one that highlights the broad, vast horizons that redefine the Americana of CALEXICO's world.
Produced by Burns, Convertino and Craig Shumacher, as with all their albums so far, at Wavelab Studios in their home town, FEAST OF WIRE studiously avoids overproduction, instead seeking to recreate a live sound, a natural feel that reflects the manner in which the two write. Joined by members of their current, extremely talented regular live line-up (Paul Niehaus - pedal steel; Jacob Valenzuela - keyboards, trumpets; Martin Wenk - accordion, guitar, sythesisers; Volker Zander - upright bass, trumpet, vibes), the feeling of a real band revelling in the joy of musical creation is at times almost overwhelming. We live in a musical world in which gloss, strings, sheen are thought to be defining factors of whether an artist is truly 'serious". But the more you listen to FEAST OF WIRE, the more revelations you experiences until you feel that CALEXICO have been transported into your world as successfully as you have been transported into theirs.
Quite simply, a towering, celebrational, effortless achievement, FEAST OF WIRE indeed…
City Slang Discography
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