In Feast of Wire the Tucson, Arizona-based Calexico has made the most overtly political statement in its brief but prolific history. Their fourth full-length CD offers a cohesive vision of the collision of cultures in the desert borderland between the U.S. and Mexico. It also rocks.
The core of Calexico is Joey Burns and John Convertino, multi-instrumentalists both. Burns, Canadian-born and Southern California-bred, holds a degree in double bass, but he also plays guitars, vibes, accordion, keyboards, mandolin, cello and of other instruments, and does the singing, his reedy vocals lying somewhere between Nick Drake and Gram Parsons. Convertino, an Oklahoma native, is a highly accomplished drummer who also plays keyboards.
Calexico’s music is an impossible to pigeonhole amalgam of rock, jazz, country, classical, Afro-Peruvian, Cuban, Mexican and spaghetti-western soundtrack sounds. Its themes, settings, arrangements and lyrics reflect the deceptively barren environment of the Sonoran Desert that forms the Arizona-Mexico frontier.
On their previous albums, they’ve played most of the instruments themselves, with the occasional addition of the Tucson mariachi band Luz de Luna and a handful of guest musicians. Feast of Wire sees them for the first time recording with their full road band, in addition to many guests, including members of the Tucson Symphony. And what a talented band it is: Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet and vibes, Martin Wenk on trumpet and accordion, Volker Zander on double bass and Paul Niehaus on pedal steel.
At the center of it all, though, are Burns on guitar and vocals and Convertino playing drums in a way that does much more than just set the rhythm — although it does that in spades, with a big, booming bass drum sound that is his trademark.
The theme is set with the opening track, the swinging norteno “Sunken Waltz,” when the narrator sings, “washed my face in the river of empire/made my bed from a cardboard crate,” and wishes for a deluge to wash clean the whole country. The theme is echoed and redoubled in the album’s strongest track, “Across the Wire.” This one is an English-language corrida, a popular style of Mexican-American ballad, typically about the daring exploits of outlaws. “Across the Wire,” though, is about Alberto and his brother and their attempt to cross illegally from Mexico to the U.S., “on the coyote’s trail.” It’s a beautiful and moving song that sums up everything Calexico has been saying in its music from the beginning, with its danceable six-eight rhythm, soaring trumpets, intricate guitar lines, and poetic lyrics: “Poison in the stream that flows to the sea/out on the waves that crash within reach/of those with so much and so little fear/you’d think it’d be crazy/to be so far away/yet so near.”
Most of the other songs have lyrics that are more impressionistic. “Quattro (World Drifts In),” is built around a riff on the cuatro, a Peruvian four-stringed guitar, and seems to use running as a metaphor for the alienation of Mexicans and Indians in Anglo society. “Black Heart,” a soaring, creepy, psychedelic orchestral number, portrays a man held prisoner by something: his fears or perhaps an actual jail. “Not Even Stevie Nicks…” is a Fleetwood Mac homage about taking a leap of faith. “Close Behind” may be a retelling of the Moses-in-the-bullrushes myth from the point of view of a mother on the wrong side of the Rio Grande: “Sniper surveys the scene/angel chorus won’t intervene/takes her child to the river’s edge/and lets her go to the depths/where dark waters flow.” “Woven Birds” paints a picture of environmental and cultural rot, which in the end offers hope for rebuilding.
The most fascinating song is “Guero Canelo,” named for a Tucson taqueria; a blend of hip-hop and cumbia that builds on the sonic experiments of Los Lobos and its side project the Latin Playboys. Over a steady dancehall beat and an infectious guitar riff, Burns’ distorted voice raps out a litany of the streets in guttural Spanglish — drugs, weapons, musicians, cars and more fill this vision of the rougher side of Tucson or any Southwestern city. Here’s a live version from a few years after the album was released, with Valenzuela singing the Cuban standard “Cuando Llegaré” in the song’s mid-section.
Accompanying the songs are a variety of instrumental pieces, from the brief, discordant strumming of “Stucco” to the infectious groove of “Pepita.” “The Book and the Canal” is a beautiful meditation on piano and double bass, and “Attack El Robot! Attack!” is an avant-garde jazz-rock-dub fusion. “Whipping the Horse’s Eyes” and the closing track, “No Doze,” are worth additions to Calexico’s catalog of trademark desert soundscapes. “Whipping” featuring mostly bass, steel guitar and maracas, while “No Doze” places steel guitar and acoustic guitar figures over a background of synthesizer washes and bowed vibes.
“Dub Latina” is a frustratingly short tune featuring acoustic guitar and accordion, while “Crumble,” is a longer, jazzy take on ’60s spy movie soundtracks, with the melody played on flute and trumpet, and noteworthy solos by Jeff Marchant on trombone and Nick Luca on electric guitar.
The elements all fit together into a unified whole, its disparate parts forming a pleasing if somewhat disorienting picture that perfectly reflects the jumble of cultures and landscapes in which the music is set. And like the desert landscape from which it’s born, the music of Calexico, particularly Feast of Wire, reveals more of itself with each exposure.
There’s a fascinating “making-of” EPK video here.