Calexico have long made cinematic music—rich with imagery and surging poignancy. With each new Calexico album, one can expect certain staples: sweeping, expansive tracks dense with instrumentation and lyrics that conjure images of the dusty landscapes that abound in the band's home state of Arizona. Listening to Calexico is something like reading a Cormac McCarthy novel: Their songs tell lush stories of noble yet accessible characters with realistic resolutions.
Feast of Wire, from 2003, is comprised of succinct soundscapes—wandering, moody instrumentals, often shorter than two minutes, that tug at the heartstrings. Principal members Joey Burns and John Convertino, along with a cast of remarkably capable players, show their ability to translate traditional influences through a contemporary lens, and their knack for genre-bending hasn't gone unnoticed.
If Feast of Wire lacked anything, it was the cohesion of a finite path. But in 2006, Garden Ruin proved Calexico can bind their songs with a common thread. It is an album of mid-tempo, steady country songs that fully utilize Burns' hearty tenor, steeped in the Tejano jazz sound Calexico have been honing for more than a decade.
The newly released Carried to Dust finds the middle ground between Calexico's previous two releases. While its flourishing strings and earthy lyricism are grounded in traditional country-Western and rock influence, Carried is peppered with bold bursts of edgy guitars and contemporary experimentation. Calexico have developed a knack for building robust walls of sound by stacking subtle, delicate parts. Here they utilize wet backing vocals, distant percussion, brazen horns that often carry the melody and light, flamenco-like guitars.
Burns attributes Calexico's overseas success—the band does extremely well in Europe, often selling out shows and consistently outpacing their U.S. album sales—to the band's nods to traditional European folk music and legendary artists such as the beautifully voiced early 20th century Portuguese singer Amalia Rodrigues. "[Calexico's sophomore album] The Black Light especially clicked with people in Europe," he says. "Our European audience seems to have a fascination with seeing styles of their own music after American interpretation."
And why shouldn't they? With Carried to Dust especially, Calexico make what is most easily categorized as Americana—a genre that owes its existence to centuries-old European influence. But Calexico's Western sound and jazz and country chops are merely vehicles for a style of music that is far less insular than typical contemporary Americana.
Carried to Dust opens with "Victor Jara's Hands," a ballad inspired by the titular martyr who was slaughtered in Chile's notorious 1973 coup. Burns, the principal songwriter, learned the story of Jara during his travels in South America and found him greatly inspirational. "He was a brilliant figure," says Burns. "He had an even more personal and direct connection with the people than Pablo Neruda." And Burns has a gift for telling heartbreaking, often political stories like Jara's in a compassionate but perfectly unpretentious manner.
In Calexico's less innovative moments—as with tracks like the Spanish language "Inspiracion," featuring guest vocalist Jacob Valenzuela—they border on the type of traditional music you might hear in a spaghetti Western or a Mexican restaurant. While they are far from gimmicky—and their trumpet- and accordion-packed arrangements are authentic—they often come across as overly sentimental, as though Burns & Co. want to pay homage to their Southwestern forefathers but fear toying with convention.
Tunes like "Slowness," on the other hand, channel Calexico's influences in a far more mature, knowing manner. The song, a duet with the phenomenally talented Pieta Brown (whose sultry croon is like that of Stevie Nicks sans vibrato), is a tearjerker. It's the type of traditional country that crops up on Carried to Dust less often than Tejano but is consistently well done. And if you listen just right, you can hear the faint influence of Gram and Emmylou.
It's no surprise that Calexico have been asked to contribute to film scores such as that of the arthouse Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There and the forthcoming Helen Mirren-Joe Pesci flick Love Ranch, the true story of the first legal brothel in Nevada. Calexico's music is enveloping and roomy, yet accessible in a manner that stems partially from Burns' eclectic, obsessively probing taste. He is admittedly a student of classic rock and drawn to the "story and character" of vocalists like Joe Strummer, The Pogues' Shane MacGowan and, not surprisingly, Bob Dylan—no doubt inspirations for Burns' throaty whisper.
Yet Calexico's influences delve much deeper. Burns cites Romanian string-and-wood ensemble Taraf de Haidouks and French composer Eric Satie as inspiration for their arrangements, though it was Burns' and Convertino's ardent love of jazz and improvisation that brought them together in their first bands Great Sand and Friends of Dean Martinez. Listen to Carried to Dust's "Man Made Lake" and you'll note that the buzzing, hard-panned riffs sound vaguely metal in origin—not unlike the left-field, pop-savvy instrumentation of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
To listen to Carried to Dust the first time is to be mesmerized by Burns' nuanced melodies and engulfed in a sea of strings and the spot-on steel of Paul Niehaus (also a contributor to Nashville institution Lambchop). A second listen reveals plinking riffs that echo the vocals, and the deliberate snare stroke and cymbal swell of Convertino's brushes. By a third listen, it's clear that Calexico's true forte is balance: Each song is a formula in which the ebbing energy and layers-deep arrangements find stasis.
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