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Published: 2003/04/26
by Chris Gardner

Feast of Wire – Calexico

Quarterstick Records 78
If you had never heard Calexico, you would quickly ascertain a few things on
first listen. In looking at the name, you would likely suggest that the
music is in some way
a blending of American and Mexican sentiment, a mix of styles, a hybrid.
Taking the
English language lyrics as a cue, you would surmise that the album was
created by folks on the northern side of the wire. A listen to the
instrumentals "Close Behind" and "Whipping the Horse’s Eyes" would
inevitably lead you to say something like, "This kinda sounds like the
desert." You aren’t entirely sure what you mean by that, but you know you
are right. You then hear "Quattro (World Drifts In)," internally say to
yourself, "The sweeping instrumentation, crisp production, and seamless
blend of influences capture something I have always known was out there but
have never heard before. It’s epic and sprawling yet tightly gathered —
grand in scope but personal in focus. It’s roots music with digital hiss
and blistered synths." Not wanting to sound like a pompous tool to your
friends, you would then likely vocalize something like the following, "Damn,
dude. These guys are
Joey Burns and John Convertino form the nucleus of this Tuscon group of
musicians. Feast of Wire, their fourth full length LP, is a monster.
It gobbles up styles like
a slouching beast and incorporates each into its whole. Mariachi, cowboy
troubadour, folk, spaghetti western soundtrack, jazz — it’s all in there.
Convertino’s spare drumming and percussion, which often excises the cymbals,
lends the album a stark immediacy, and the array of sustaining instruments
(from accordion to string sections to pedal steel) conjures the expansive
granduer of the mountainous desert.
Lyrically, Burns’ world offers grim slices of the lives of the downtrodden
and despairing. Carpenter Mike flees the city in "Sunken Waltz" to take
shelter in the desert and in his dreams. Alberto and his brother dodge
la migra as they navigate their way "Across
the Wire" in a track that mirrors the narratives of classic country music.
The narrator of
"Black Heart," the album’s most starkly beautiful statement, is "stuck in
low" with "fangs… inside my skin". The track begins with a clatter of
dissonant drums rattling the mic. Strings under-pinned by pedal steel
bridge into the verse, where the fuzzed bass looms. Piano, pedal steel, and
that lurking digital hiss litter the track, but the strings are the thing.
Few bands use them as effectively as they are used here as they build to
shrieking close.
The several instrumentals seem destined or designed for soundtracks. "Close
Behind" is a revelation, the kind of sweeping gesture that hatches only in
the American
Southwest. The mariachi under-rhythm rides first beneath Paul Neihaus’
pedal steel then the strings and accordion, all of which give you a sense of
the surrounding vastness, but
it’s the brass section blasting in that confirms the presence of a mounted
man in a sombrero close by. "Whipping the Horses’ Eyes" quite simply is the
desert at night. "Attack El Robot! Attack!" jumps fully-formed off the
pages of a comic book. The hero stands, hands twitching by his holsters in
the dusty streets when, with a grinding, lumbering slowness, the gigantic
gun-slinging robot emerges from behind the saloon. The hero wets himself.
"Crumble" is the exception here, translating the western overtures that
permeate the album into a Mingus-style, bass-driven, brassy romp. It’s
straight jazz with a Calexico stamp.
Feast of Wire speaks a language of its own. It is its own niche.
Convertino, and company have crafted a beautiful statement, managing to
cobble together a
sound from disparate sources that is strikingly individual. It takes a few
spins to settle into
their world, but once you do, you won’t want to leave.

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