US - Arizona - Full Moon 80 - 04/16/03
Feat Of Wire
Their name tells the story. An amalgam so ergonomic it takes a while to sink in, this band
have perfected a music of contrasts. Cal(ifornia) and (M)exico; San Diego and Tijuana - the name
conjures up something like a border town in Orson Welles' Touch Of Evil, with all the
age-old mistrust and subversive cross-pollination that entails. From this axis of uneasy
neighbours, however, Calexico have found a beautiful, logical conclusion that sounds as old as
the Wild West and as contemporary as anything else you'll hear this year.
Calexico - Joey Burns and John Convertino - used to be the rhythm section of alt.country
pioneers Giant Sand, but Feast Of Wire takes in a whole range from wheezy accordion
waltzes to tragic, sweeping vistas of strings, from mariachi exuberance to eerie electronica.
The album is truly a wide-screen marvel, though never self-indulgent or in danger of losing
focus. The economy deployed is refreshing - 16 tracks in a little over 45 minutes - and there's
a wealth of ideas and styles here. The whole thing is shot through with a consistency of mood
that results in a work more redolent of a Leone Western or outlaw novel, than a "mere" pop album.
This is despite, or perhaps because of, frequent instrumental interludes that skilfully accentuate
the album's shades of dark and light. "The Book And The Canal", for example, introduces Side 2
with morose, mournful piano; "Crumble" is like the incredible jazz/funk/latin soundtrack to a
movie's climax chase scene. Somehow, these opposing forces are contained within Calexico's
breadth of vision.
Like the characters in their songs, Burns and Convertino always seem ready to drop what they're
doing and move on - sometimes you wish they were less so, though there's always another experience
just around the corner. Like when the edgy mandolin and soothing pedal steel of "Pepita" fades
into "Not Even Stevie Nicks", though the latter is the best song Mercury Rev never did. Or when
the noirish nu-jazz breakbeat (honestly!) of "Attack El Robot! Attack!" ends far too soon, but
kicks straight into the more traditional "Across The Wire", perhaps the most explicit result of
the band's just-north-of-the-border residency in Tuscon, Arizona.
Calexico can't really be accused of musical tourism, though. The disparate styles are so
expertly arranged and entwined that it's virtually impossible to see the join. What could have
turned out over-styled and lifeless has alchemised into something fully realised and breathtaking.
Seek it out.
Copyright © 2003 James Caig