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 clichés 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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