Calexico sprinkles on the hot sauce
- John Chandler
- Portland Tribune - Features
Big-as-the-desert-sky album is infused with Southwest flavor
If Calexico's new album, 'Feast of Wire,' were a movie, it would be filmed in one of those opulent, widescreen processes popular in the '50s, like CinemaScope. In this way, every detail of the panoramic desert vistas conjured by the music would come crashing down on the audience.
In articles about the Tucson, Ariz., combo, writers frequently describe the Calexico sound in cinematic terms, often in comparison with Italian soundtrack maestro Ennio Morricone.
'We love Ennio Morricone,' admits Calexico drummer John Convertino. 'He's more than just a guy who does Western soundtracks; he's incredibly inventive and versatile.'
Versatility is definitely the key ingredient in Calexico's cookbook. The band is essentially comprised of Convertino and singer-instrumentalist Joey Burns. They launched the group in the mid-'90s after mutually burning out on conventional rock music and discovering an appetite for all sounds Latin.
'We were in a recording studio in Tucson, and there was a mariachi band recording right before us,' Convertino says. 'The engineer would play us some of the stuff they were working on, and the vibe just sunk in. It was a sensibility that other bands didn't have and you just never heard. We fell in love with that sound. Then we started thinking about different combinations we could do.'
'Feast of Wire' (Quarterstick Records) is Calexico's fourth album, and it builds upon many of the styles that Convertino and Burns have explored previously while opening the door to some new influences. There are country waltzes spiked with accordion and steel guitar, Cuban jazz, fiery mariachi with trumpets blaring over the top, ice-cool bop, weepy string arrangements and pulse-pounding instrumentals that would not be out of place in a modern-day Western.
Like all Westerns, 'Feast of Wire' has elements of flight, relentless pursuit and travel from one set of circumstances to something (hopefully) better. In 'Across the Wire' a young Mexican lad recklessly crosses the border looking for redemption in America. In 'Sunken Waltz' a carpenter drops his tools and walks out on his job to sleep under the desert stars and record his dreams. 'Close Behind' is pure orchestral chase music.
'We try and make enough space in our songs so it's possible that you can sort of create a movie in your head as you go through the album. But when all is said and done, the basic theme of the record is moving on,' Convertino says. 'It's dealing with the mess and then moving on.
'We recorded a lot of music for this album. Then we pared it down, building a record that would have contrast, but still have a theme. We also wanted to develop some of our other influences.'
On 'Attack El Robot, Attack,' Convertino and Burns ignite some Latin jazz over an electronic foundation. 'That was a fun song to do because it was based on the rhythm from a drum machine,' Convertino says. 'Then Jacob (Valenzuela, trumpeter) and I come in with trumpet and drums and literally attack the robot. We're like 'Machines doing human work? Well, get a load of this!' '
Despite the vast and varied multicultural vibe on 'Feast of Wire,' Convertino and Burns know that there's no substitute for a hit single. On the song 'Not Even Stevie Nicks É ' the duo tries to channel the platinum spirits of Fleetwood Mac.
'Joey always wants to try and get at least one pop song on each record,' Convertino says. 'He picked up this cheap guitar and started playing, and it sounded like a Fleetwood Mac song to me. So I started playing this beat that was like 'Go Your Own Way.'
'Joey told me he'd been dating this girl for a few weeks, and one night he went to her apartment and she had this little shrine to Stevie Nicks,' he continues. 'We've always thought Stevie Nicks was kind of cool. She has a house in Scottsdale (Ariz.). So we put her in this song as kind of a witch figure of modern mythology. Maybe she's good, maybe she isn't. You don't know for sure.'