It doesn't stretch the imagination much to use some pedal steel and a few maracas to evoke the landscape of the Southwest--rocky desert, border towns--but the remarkable thing about Calexico has always been the way Joey Burns and John Convertino tread beyond the clich├ęs of their band's country and mariachi instrumentation in order to grasp at the spirit in that arid soil. Employing a seemingly overambitious palette of influences--post-rock, avant-jazz, folk melodics, Morricone strings and yes, of course, a healthy helping of mariachi bringing up the rear--Burns and Convertino never strained to convey a mood you imagine must be imbedded in their bones. The essence of every track on Calexico's last disc, The Hot Rail, was a kind of vagabond loneliness, the churning longing of a runaway with only empty sky and memories to accompany his dash to an unspecified somewhere else. And the music never sounded a false note.

Calexico's new Feast of Wire is pretty much composed of the same base elements that made Hot Rail such a sad but thrilling ride. Yet the mood has shifted slightly. And, fittingly for a band fronted by indie rock's tightest bass and drum duo, the change is in the rhythms. Even the most ambient tracks on The Hot Rail had a desperado momentum, and the album's sequencing (a Hazlewood-esque ballad followed by a spaced-out instrumental followed by a mariachi interlude) also suggested going. But on Feast of Wire the mariachi and post-rock rhythms are more integrated into all the songwriting, making the album feel both looser and more seamless.

Thus, too, the change in atmosphere: There's a stillness to even the album's most driving tracks, which are crowded around the starting line. By the end, the songs are all languorous and open-ended; it's as though Hot Rail's running man stopped for a moment and took a good look around and realized that between here and there is better than either here or there. Feast of Wire settles into a sense of rest, a little uneasy, to be sure, but placid nonetheless. A sense of nowhereness--where the only movement is the sky rolling above and the ground shifting beneath your feet. And it's still sad, but God, it's still beautiful.

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