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As much as music can ever be the sound of a place, Calexico’s is the desert Southwest, a soundtrack full of space and mystery, a seemingly incongruous mix of elemental components all wrapped into an otherworldly beauty.
Since the band’s formation as an offshoot of Giant Sand, Joey Burns and John Convertino have taken what they’ve heard in the region—the borderlands of Arizona and California—and added their own voices, creating dramatic music that couldn’t come from anywhere else. The Sonoran desert holds an astonishing biodiversity, a fantastic mix of things thorny, creepy, and strange co-existing under a great expanse of sky and rugged, towering mountains. Calexico exports the feel of that landscape via a music that comes with waves of images.
The diversity of musical influences that Calexico embraced even from the start speaks to the band’s restless and experimental ambitions, but the group’s identity and vision didn’t coalesce until 2003’s Feast Of Wire. Calexico’s fourth record arrived without clear precedent, even in its own catalog. Feast Of Wire marshals all of the sounds in the band’s arsenal—folk, country, surf-rock, mariachi, desert blues, jazz, field recordings, and orchestral and cinematic instincts—into a signature combination indelibly tied to its Tucson home.
Rather than sticking to a formula, Calexico transcends it here, making the elements exist in a harmonic balance that the band hadn’t quite achieved before. At home on Chicago’s Quarterstick, a sub-label of the adventurous Touch And Go Records, Calexico was able to indulge that experimental urge to quickly move beyond a simple blending of cultures or styles and on Feast Of Wire, the reductive “Tex-Mex” tag couldn’t have been less descriptive.
Feast Of Wire is an exceptionally broad record, 16 songs that present an ever-shifting portrait of a band in command of much more than it had let on before. The spaghetti-Western and mariachi influences from Hot Rail and The Black Light are met with ballads, pure jazz, dark folk, dynamic rock, sci-fi instrumentals, and Latin dance rhythms plucked from street fiestas, all as vivid as a sunset spread across a jagged mountain horizon.
The record’s opening tune, “Sunken Waltz,” has become Calexico’s calling card, built around Burns’ nylon string guitar and Convertino’s distinctive pop on the snare drum, with accents of swaying accordion and reverberating echoes of electric guitar. The song also points directly to Calexico’s non-musical influences in the history, culture, and politics of the region and its people.
Calexico’s home is also the home of writers like Cormac McCarthy, Carlos Fuentes, and Charles Bowden, each of whom has inspired characters, themes, song titles, and subjects. Lyrically, “Sunken Waltz” is a poetic indictment against desert sprawl, borrowing lines from historians Donald Worster and Mike Davis to describe the water struggles in the arid West and the ever-intertwined lives of the haves and the have-nots in the urban boomtowns. Lines like “No news, no new regrets” describe a life conditioned to expect things will only get worse.
Like “Sunken Waltz,” “Across The Wire” touches on politics, but from a very human point of view. Borrowing a title from a Luis Alberto Urrea book, the song is focused directly on the U.S.-Mexico border and the lives that exist at the crossroads of two nations, revolving around that line in the sand. Borrowing its sound from the street fiestas, the song paints a picture the bleak wastelands that represent the gap between “those with so much and no show of heart” and those who’d leave their entire world behind for the chance of a new life.
“Quattro (World Drifts In)” gets its propulsive rhythm from a cuatro, a four-string guitar of Venezuelan origin, with rising trumpet figures and electric guitar providing the melodic urgency. “Black Heart” brings the ominous sound of a gathering thunderhead, a noirish and cinematic song a string arrangement from Burns and Nick Luca that builds a mood to match Burns’ lyrics about a blackness creeping its way to the four corners of the world.
Along with “Across The Wire” and “Sunken Waltz,” “Not Even Stevie Nicks” remains a live favorite, a bittersweet folk-pop hybrid that plays on the image of a priestess, with Burns’ falsetto singing a tale of seduction, inevitability and the power of music to hold people in its grasp, at least for a little while.
Part of Feast Of Wire’s ability to do just that comes from Calexico’s bold choice to rely heavily on instrumentals. Fully half of the record’s tracks are wordless, again with the stylistic breadth that characterizes the album. None are mere interludes. From the spaghetti-Western of “Close Behind” to the funereal piano of “The Book And The Canal” to the sci-fi jazz of “Attack El Robot! Attack,” each instrumental tells a story, the band giving the mood and the landscape, while the listener lets the imagination fill in the rest.
The album’s latter stretch finds the band at its most adventurous, starting with the aptly titled “Dub Latina” and carrying through the dance party of “Guero Canelo” to the jazz of “Crumble” and insomniac paranoia of “No Doze.” The pacing and careful sequencing of Feast Of Wire make it all work, from the first-light-of-new-morning vibe of “Sunken Waltz” through that elongated moment of darkness just before dawn on “No Doze.”
Throughout, the band is constantly on the move, fully confident in using the studio itself as another instrument, leveraging its control over what would otherwise be stylistic chaos. The subtleties that help shape the record—strings, accordion, trumpet, and pedal steel—make the sound a naturalistic portrayal of the region Calexico inhabits. If there’s a theme or mood to encompass the entire record, it’s one of yearning and escape, and Calexico’s is fundamentally a transportational sound. Just as the mythological West continues its tradition as an endlessly captivating setting in film, Calexico’s music finds its fans across the world (Europe in particular) using the songs as a gateway to that same place.
Calexico was built on the music Burns and Convertino played as the rhythm section in Friends Of Dean Martinez and Giant Sand and on records by Richard Buckner and Neko Case. But Feast Of Wire became the band’s turning point as well as its masterpiece. Since then, Calexico has been even more expansive, collaborating with Sam Beam on In The Reins, backing several artists (including Willie Nelson, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and Roger McGuinn) on the I’m Not There soundtrack, contributing to Los Super Seven, recording soundtrack albums, pushing further into both indie rock and jazz, and adding international musicians to a regularly shifting lineup that’s among the most compelling live acts around.
And more so than the records that immediately followed, on 2012’s Algiers and this year’s Edge Of The Sun, Feast Of Wire became the starting point for ambitious records that again reached out to explore the deep connection between sound and place. Choosing to write and record in New Orleans and Mexico City, respectively, Calexico balanced its musical history against everything it encountered on those purposeful excursions to find even more new elements to incorporate. Still, Feast Of Wire is and will always be a foundational record that carries the sound of the group’s home.