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Calexico | Feast Of Wire (City Slang)
With the affection advanced to them on the back of 1998's 'The Black Light' (a glorious road trip around Morricone, Mexicana and Cormac McCarthy territory), Calexico built the capacity to shape the bulk of their existence through perpetual live performances, rather than via direct studio accomplishments.  Which meant that 2000's official follow-up, 'Hot Rail,' felt like a rather functional affair.  Almost indistinguishable from the plethora (of admittedly well-compiled) tour-CD's doing the rounds, 'Hot Rail' was high on mood but low on melody; the sound of a band treading water in-between tirelessly treading the boards.  Which means that this fourth regular album release comes with a greater weight of expectation than before.  To their credit (and possibly to the chagrin of Giant Sand's Howe Gelb) the core Calexico duo of Joey Burns and John Convertino rise Phoenix-like to the challenge - pushing aside the hushed suggestion and lonesome noodling of 'Hot Rail' for far more expansive vistas.  Enlisting the usual extended crew of compadres (including pedal steel maestro Paul Niehaus, multi-instrumentalist Nick Luca, and a now obligatory Mariachi ensemble), Burns and Convertino concentrate on making 'Feast Of Wire' bigger, better and above all, a lot more fun than its recent predecessors.  Therefore Burns spars splendidly with the classically-trained Luca to drape Black Heart and Close Behind in grandiose John Barry strings, taking Calexico's desert-scorched dramatics over a horizon previously seen shimmering out of range.  As well as upping the studio budget, the carnivalesque exuberance of the band's live show is brought along to liven up the proceedings, putting extra lubricant into the lithe Latin grooves of Quattro (Worlds Drift In) and Across The Wire (Widescreen) in particular.  There's an even greater crosscutting of styles too; which sees Crumble bashing Bond theme brass into a marvellously mutated Mingus jazz whirl and Attack El Robot! Attack! splashing a 'Swordfishtrombones'-era Tom Waits instrumental with analog synths and a Jah Wobble bass-line.  Burns seems notably more confident with his role as frontman throughout, allowing his vocals to vary in tone and texture, in line with the sonic restructuring.  Grumbling into an amp (like Iggy Pop on The Passenger) on the Buena Vista Social Club-soaked G├╝ero Canelo and almost breaking into a croon on the soaring Not Even Stevie Nicks, Burns proves that he has more than just a desert-dry storyteller whisper residing in his tonsils.  Overall, 'Feast of Wire' may not quite top the genre defining delectation of 'The Black Light,' but it's still a formidable statement in its own-right.  It captures Calexico re-energised with invigorating ideas and a new forward-thinking epic reach, brought into fine focus by a broad streak of good humour and well-honed musicianship.  The album Calexico simply had to make, and then some.

Adrian Pannett
January-February 2003

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