(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #74 – released February 18, 2003)
Track listing: Sunken Waltz / Quattro (World Drifts In) / Stucco / Black Heart / Pepita / Not Even Stevie Nicks… / Close Behind / Woven Birds / The Book and The Canal / Attack El Robot! Attack! / Across The Wire / Dub Latina / Guero Canelo / Whipping The Horse’s Eyes / Crumble / No Doze
One can’t help but forever link some musicians with where they come from: Kate Bush is the quintessential British eccentric, early R.E.M. exemplifies the Athens, Georgia college town scene (as do The B-52’s), Soul Coughing’s alt-rock/jazz hybrid is 1990s downtown NYC incarnate, etc. And while some prove so trailblazing and iconic that they eventually define their region’s sound—think what mid-70s Fleetwood Mac did for California, or New Order and The Smiths for ’80s Manchester—others glean influences from existing regionalisms and make them their own.
Named after a town straddling the border between California and Mexico, Calexico is an ideal moniker for a band actually based in another close-to-the-border city: Tucson, Arizona. Its primary two members, Joey Burns and John Convertino met while performing as the rhythm section in Howe Gelb’s long-running collective Giant Sand in the early ’90s. After Gelb moved the band from Los Angeles to Tucson, Burns and Convertino split off and began recording together, first under the name Spoke (releasing a self-titled album in 1995) before becoming Calexico, reissuing the album (originally limited to 2,000 copies) two years later under the new name.
While Spoke already has many elements of the band’s core sound in place, it’s not particularly songful, rather resembling a series of fragments without much in the way connective tissue or memorable hooks. Fortunately, this changes on their second album The Black Light (1998) as Burns and Convertino prevent their atmospheric, Latin noir from floating into the ether with a surfeit of hummable melodies and rich, evocative soundscapes. It sets a template they’ve more or less followed for nearly twenty years—their next album, Hot Rail (2000), is simply more-of-the-same, spiked with the occasional diversion like the seven-minute-long “Fade” (which holds its own with any Neil Young epic you’d care to name.)
Still, I’m willing to guess that most people outside Tucson (including myself) hadn’t heard of Calexico until their fourth album, Feast of Wire. On first listen, it plays like a logical follow-up to The Black Light and Hot Rail; over time, however, it reveals itself as the grand apotheosis of what those records attempted. While the overall feel remains within the same conceivable world of its predecessors, the songs themselves are noticeably sharper and riskier. Feast of Wire unravels like a sonic crazy quilt bringing together a far-reaching but simpatico scope of musical touchstones. It will shift on a dime from a brief piano-and-cello sonata (“The Book and The Canal”) to a kitschy sci-fi instrumental (“Attack El Robot! Attack!”) to a Tex-Mex story-song that could’ve easily been recorded by Marty Robbins in 1961 (“Across The Wire”) to an unexpectedly sensual, seductive bossa-nova (“Dub Latina”). Even more impressive, absolutely none of it jars or sounds out of place.
Feast of Wire makes liberal use of regional touches such as mariachi horns, Morricone-inspired strings, occasional accordion and some good old pedal steel. But at its heart, Calexico is really an indie-pop group, with songwriters Burns and Convertino making like sort of a Southwestern Steely Dan (albeit far less snarky and cynical), the two of them continually driving and shaping the band’s overall sound and ethos. Burns plays everything from guitar to pump organ, but his yearning, slippery tenor vocals render him a de-facto leader (even though, like most Calexico records up to this point, this one’s split straight down the middle between vocal tracks and instrumentals.) Convertino’s musical contributions are far more centered—he may be one of his era’s greatest drummer-percussionists in part because he favors finesse over flash, from his hip-shaking polyrhythms that introduce and sustain “Quattro (World Drifts In)” to his delicate tapestry of shuffling beats and strategically placed booming tom-toms in “Dub Latina”.
“Sunken Waltz” opens the album with an acoustic guitar riff then accompanied by accordion, percussion and Burns’ vocals—it’s simple and palatable, an entryway into the band’s world. “Quattro (World Drifts In) builds on this established familiarity, but spreads it over a far wider canvas—a vast enclosure of space, carefully layered with a plethora of instrumental hooks. Between them and Burns’ breathy vocals, the end result resembles Lindsey Buckingham far more than Buck Owens, but the real kicker is how it all leads to a chorus where everything seems to solidify on a call-and-response between a repeated four-note horn riff and Burns signing the line, “Hit the ground… running.” This was the first Calexico tune I ever heard (off a Mojo magazine Best of 2003 compilation); its immediacy naturally led me directly to this album.
As if to instantly upend expectations, the next song, “Stucco”, is merely twenty seconds of a distorted, noodling guitar riff processed through some kind of filter. Just as it makes an impression (or dares to wear out its welcome), “Black Heart” takes over. Burns quietly counts it off until he’s consumed by loud, clanging percussion and descendant, stretched out minor-key strings. The latter come to dominate the arrangement, nearly smothering everything in their path (including Burns’ most mournful, emotional vocal.) And yet, this is not only the longest, heaviest track on the album but also one of the more traditionally songful ones, crossing a Lee Hazelwood lament with R.E.M.’s “Country Feedback”, spicing its catchy chorus with stately, almost Liberace(!)-like piano filigrees.
Another instrumental, “Pepita” follows—nearly eight times as long as “Stucco”, it builds from a lone electronic signal noise to a two-note Morse code guitar riff which shifts into a full band arrangement after the one-minute mark. It’s haunting while remaining mostly inscrutable, but unlike, say, many of Spoke’s instrumentals, it holds your attention, engaging as it runs the gamut from the minuscule to the expansive. After it simmers to a close, the next song provides great contrast by opening with just acoustic guitar. “Not Even Stevie Nicks…” (notice the sustained Fleetwood Mac references) plays almost like the Eagles at their folkiest, at least in the verses. When Burns arrives at the chorus with the lyric, “Drives off the cliff… into the blue,” Convertino’s drums enter and utterly transform the song, lending the minimal arrangement some much-needed heft; in turn, when Burns responds, “Not even she… can save him,” hitting a gentle but sustained high note on the word “she”, he’s seemingly responding to and reinforcing this newfound tension.
The rest of Feast of Wire spools out in a similar fashion. However, any disparity of genre or song structure between tracks doesn’t result in a disjointed listen due to the band’s masterful command of mood and tone. In theory, another stirring mariachi instrumental in 12/8 time (“Close Behind”) shouldn’t necessarily transition well into a relatively straightforward, tender vocal ballad (“Woven Birds”), but both feel like they belong in the same universe: not only do they share a few instrumental touches (acoustic guitar, accordion), they also could be two sides of the same coin—a clear, expansive blue sky overtaken by clouds and a gentle mist (or perhaps an oncoming storm.) Likewise, after the supple interlude of “Dub Latina”, “Guero Canelo” gets the blood flowing with distorted, unintelligible vocals and a backbeat propelled with insistent cowbell, only for the mood to cool down again with “Whipping the Horse’s Eyes”, a brief, eerie intermezzo of just shaker, cello and pedal steel. Apart, the tracks seem woefully unrelated, but together, they coalesce as a series of textures, of emotional highs and lows, of scattered puzzle pieces that, when put into place, paint a whole picture.
On the album’s final two tracks, Calexico pushes their sound as far as it can reasonably go without eradicating that picture’s borders. “Crumble” takes a stab at straight-up jazz, complete with stand-up bass, lithe, swinging polyrhythms, tinkling piano and vibes, muted trumpets, a Wes Montgomery-esque guitar solo and Mingus-like horn charts. At first, it resembles nothing else on Feast of Wire—heck, it might even fool unsuspecting listeners into thinking it’s a recording of a mid-century cool bop combo. And yet, if you listen a little closer and consider all the stylistic diversions preceding it on the album, it’s no stretch to say it simply belongs as another facet of this genre-inclusive cosmos Burns and Convertino have assembled.
“No Doze” closes the album by further defying expectations. Like “The Overload”, the final song on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, it eschews a backbeat and any hint of melody for an ominous soundscape dominated by percussive sounds that just seem to drip-drop into the mix (and definitely not into place.) The vocals arriving at 1:30 are barely audible over a growing, electro-distorted din. Snatches of instruments we’ve heard throughout the album (pedal steel, Spanish guitar) seem foreign, almost atonal in this setting. It all feels post-apocalyptic, as if we’ve come upon the most sinister aftermath of “Black Heart” imaginable. Everything just crawls to a slow fade, not tying up Feast of Wire into a neat, digestible little bow, but fully laying bare its frayed edges, revealing a dark, foreboding conclusion to an epic journey.
At this writing, Calexico has put out four more studio albums since Feast of Wire (with a fifth one on the way), not to mention a cornucopia of compilations, soundtracks, live albums and extended-play singles; all of them further the narrative Burns and Convertino have been judiciously crafting since Spoke. My favorite of these later efforts is 2015’s Edge Of The Sun, which was generally criticized for being too pop, the notion of which I balk at. Despite cultivating a seemingly boundless catalog of influences, what is Calexico if not a band continually, sometimes profoundly expanding upon the idea of what pop music can mean and contain?
Up next: Cardiff In The Sun.
“Quattro (World Drifts In)”: