Calexico's leaders and writers are Joey Burns and John Convertino. They are the the de luxe rhythm section of Howe Gelb's Giant Sand, but in Calexico they take on a big variety of strumming and hitting chores. The band have released only three 'real' albums that you'll find in shops, so you'd think that this would make a critical discography a somewhat foolish endeavour,and short. But you'd be wrong. |
When writing about Calexico's music most reviewers find it impossible not to give in to their base desires, to get their juices flowing and thesaurus open inventing descriptions of the band's sound. Words like cross-border, Mariachi, Mexican, space, desert, fertile, mix, noir, tortilla, spaghetti, South Western, Ennio Morricone, vibes, cinematic, muted, and Tucson all get a good look in.
Calexico came about in 1996, when Burns and Convertino were booted out of another of their bands, The Friends of Dean Martinez. Lead by steel guitarist Bill Elms, FODM made what has been called desert lounge music, sort of Ry Cooder meets Burt Kampfert. They made two albums, and then Elms sacked them, much to their surprise, so the story goes. The booting out seems somewhat presaged by the sleeve of Shadow of Your Smile, the last album featuring Burns and Convertino. Scanning the credits you'll see Joey's writing dominating the non-covers (most having a flavour of the sound they would go on to concoct themselves, especially the fine and very Calexico-like Chunder) but his is the very last name on the credits list! John writes a few too. A bit dominating for a rhythm section, you may think, as Bill Elms seemed to. So our heroes took the material they had written for the next FODM album and became Calexico.
The band's beginning is a bit messy release-wise. Their first release Superstition Highway in 1995, was a cassette knocked out cheaply from home. Some unlucky punters got it home only to find a blank tape within, so chaotic was the home production line. It's as rough and muffled as you might imagine, but it's strangely compelling. It's as close as most of us will get to spending an afternoon at home with Joey, while he strums and sings and listens to his answerphone messages and the rain, plays you some Irish music, and strums some more while John plays the marimba. You get sudden endings, the sound of the microphone switch, songs stopping as someone pays a visit, some strange instrumentals, and it all has lots of charm. The songs are mostly just Joey strumming a slow guitar and singing downbeat. On country standard Hello Stranger he sings with Tasha Bundy, there's a version of Spark, later to be a single, and a version of Chunder, a very twangy instrumental which also appears on The Shadow of Your Smile. It also has Ice Cream Jeep, a recording of an ice cream van(!) which later turns up on Spoke.
Then 1996 saw two 7" singles. Laquer/Drape is a song and an instrumental very much in the style of the following year's Black Light album, with the vibes, the cello, the twang and the atmosphere. Strange then that Spark/The Ride, the next single, should lead with as country & westernish a song as Joey's ever sung, all about strong liquor and broken hearts, featuring sad pedal steel and a similar rough flat sound to the first album, Spoke released before the singles on limited vinyl in Germany but more widely later on CD. Are you following all this?
Spoke's lo-fi country charm contrasts somewhat with the lads' later more widescreen sound, but it's intimate and strummy with a slappy drum sound and accordions aplenty. Sometimes the waltzy tempos and slightly boxy sound evoke a night of dancing under the stars, in a roofless ruined cinema with a dark-haired women in a floaty red dress...sorry, got carried away there. Highlights include the tastefully chugging Glimpse and the plaintive Spokes. This one may not be polished, but it's still a gem. Amongst Calexico's 'proper' releases it ranks second only to the second 'proper' album The Black Light for quality and consistency, in my opinion.
Released in 1998, The Black Light sees Calexico hit their stride sonically and graphically - this has the look that now characterises the band (thanks to artist Victor Gastelum) and the width of sound that so suits their cinematic imagery. They move further South too, with the cross-border flavour to the lyrics inspired by Cormac McCarthy (who gets a 'Thank you' on the sleeve) and The Congress, Tucson's run-down haunted hotel. The songs are, according to Joey, 'tied together' - it's even been described as a concept album - with the hotel porter on the graveyard shift in The Ride (ptII) later leaving with the circus and getting into trouble with a local gang in The Black Light. Shots are fired and he meets a chica who helps him across the border. Minas de Cobre is probably the archetypal Calexico instrumental, beginning with the sad sound of a far away train whistle, and with the massed guitars and mariachi horns then whipping up a variety of storms.
There's barely a track on this one that won't enhance your life with it's fertile mixing of music and mood and make you want to head down South yourself.
The singles from The Black Light were Stray, which also contained Laquer and Drape, both sides of the first single, and The Ride pt II - 'Beneath the neon hub of downtown/The local hotel ghosts blow back around' - which came with three mixes of Minas de Cobre. The Extend-o-mix is, ummm, longer and has lounge-twangier guitar and no horns, at first, and then just as you think it's finished it starts again with acoustic guitars and slips into the original version. The Spatial mix is all acoustic guitars and vibes and funny cello noises. The Acoustic mix is more stately and has really twangy electric guitar, and no horns.
There was also Descamino, a 12" single featuring remixes of music from The Black Light. I say music rather than tracks because all four tracks are pretty unrecognisable, and some are pretty formless and strange. Calexico's unwelcome, for me, tendency to occasionally go all free-form and jazzy starts here on the title track. Tasha Bundy's remix Chach is better, bouncier and sexier. (And can also be found on the City Slang label's Grand Slang compilation) I quite like Triple T Truckstop too, with it's sad sound of a far off lonesome pedal steel and suggestion of trucks passing. (It can also be found, slightly changed and longer and just called Triple T, on the Loose label's New Sounds of the Old West volume two.)
Aside from the singles 1999 also saw the release of the first of the band's tour CDs, produced in a limited number for sale only at concerts. Road Map is six instrumentals long and begins with El Morro, a lovely slippery thing which later turned up on Calexico's soundtrack to the film Committed. Glowing Heart of the World is a slow starter that eventually goes all Ghost Riders in the Sky, and which is, as I write - mid-2001 - the band's concert-opener of choice. Calexico have a tendency to tuck their best songs away on odd corners of tours CDs and b-sides, as we'll see later. This is still arguably the best of the three tour CDs so far.
The Committed soundtrack CD contains 7 old songs, including Glen Campbell's Wichita Lineman and Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash, and about half an hour of mostly short instrumentals by Calexico, often versions of their old songs. It's a nice enough listen, without adding anything too exciting to the canon.
The first year of the new millennium saw the release of Hot Rail, the official follow-up to The Black Light, and a follow up too soon, in many people's opinion. It introduces the mariachi horns and does contain some of their finest: Ballad of Cable Hogue, Service and Repair, El Picador, Tres Avisos and Muleta - two songs and three instrumentals, and all written by Joey. Much of the rest are drifty instrumentals lacking in life and rhythm, and featuring in their concerts never. Not a bad album exactly, but their worst nonetheless. Collectors may wish to seek out the lavishly packaged Japanese version which adds The Crystal Frontier and the lengthy Hard Hat.
But for those of us left a little down by the dreariness of half of Hot Rail help was on the way. The first single from Hot Rail was Ballad of Cable Hogue, and it's extra tracks included The Crystal Frontier. This song instantly became a hotty in the Calexico canon and a live favourite, and in 2001 it got released as a single. But it was once just a b-side, coming after the release of an album that could well have done with its magic. Strange. The other single was Service and Repair, and it too had an extra track Crooked Road and Briar which has now also become a live fave. When released in its own right The Crystal Frontier got an aptly named big new widescreen mix, which even improves on the original, and an affecting acoustic mix. (On both of these new versions Joey sings 'Finds a raven's head in a rattler's tail' rather than '...in a rattle-snake's tail' which is what he sang on the original. Interesting eh?) The third track is a cover of Chanel #5, taken from 'Come on Beautiful', an American Music Club tribute album. The 12" vinyl version of the single featured the widescreen mix again and a Buscemi instrumental mix, which sounds a bit too much like a discarded Kid Creole backing track for comfort, but it does end quite prettily. The vinyl also featured a beatier mix of Untitled III off of Hot Rail, by Two Lone Swordsmen.
But back in 2000 the second tour CD, Travelall, was released. It contains nine instrumentals, and it starts with The Waves Crashing Silently Through The Dominator's Hull, which is a great title but we're back in muted-trumpety jazzy noodling territory I'm afraid. The rest range from the beaty to the drifty, but are mostly formless and not fun. There is one likeable twitchily twangy number called Comes With a Smile, the name of the very magazine whose web-site you are now reading. A coincidence? We think not. (editor's interjection: the track appeared with a vocal under the title Smarm y Charm on the very first Comes with a Smile covermount CD. The lyric included the words 'all the while Comes with a Smile' and was clearly written with us in mind...I still feel bad for slagging Hot Rail!) Lunada Lando is an attractive little acoustic guitar and percussion jobby.
2001's tour CD was called Aerocalexico and it's better - much better. It has some songs! All the Pretty Horses is trad and sweet and continues the Cormac MacCarthy connection. (It's also a great big improvement on the cheesy instrumental version on Shadow of Your Smile.) But the reference points aren't all American: Clothes of Sand is another lovely stand out, and an old Nick Drake song. There's also Gift x-change from London radio station Xfm's alterno-Christmas album Cool Christmas and an instrumental mix of Calexico's version of Goldfrapp's Human. The instrumentals still predominate, but here are mostly terse, varied and atmospheric, and they tend to be tight and strummy, rather than loose and jazzy. Crooked Road and Briar and the original Crystal Frontier are on here too.
The only other release in 2001 so far has been Even My Sure Things Fall Through, a short album collecting the b-sides to the singles from Hot Rail and three videos. The Japanese version added four tracks from Travelall and Aerocalexico.
Which brings us up to date, late 2001, with the band due to have started recording a new album in August. Let's hope that it's an evolution of the Crystal Frontier and Aerocalexico strand, rather than the Travelall tendency. But either way it's fascinating and good having a favourite band intent on keeping you on your toes.