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As cool as the breeze brewing before a desert storm, CALEXICO (buddies Joey Burns and John Convertino) were the missing link between Tex-Mex maestro FLACO JIMENEZ and 80s Paisley underground outfit GREEN ON RED. Loyal and persistent to their cultural agenda, it was hard to categorise their music: a strange amalgamation of post-rock, surf music, Portuguese/Mexican/Latin mariachi jazz fused with sweeping spaghetti western soundtracks. Basically, the well-named CALEXICO (a small railway town on the Californian/Mexican border) picked up a potpourri of pop-rock from an ever-widening echo of their dusty surroundings.
Bassist Burns and percussionist Convertino met at the onset of the 90s as members of Tucson, Arizona’s finest cactus-rock band GIANT SAND; John had been part of the outfit since 1988’s `The Love Songs’; Joey joined up for 1992’s `Center Of The Universe’. True, both parties were enjoying success in HOWE GELB’s tumbleweed desert band, but when a European tour had ended, the pair began playing and collecting non-conventional instruments from a down-town store named Chicago Music. The core trio of GIANT SAND (Gelb, Convertino and Burns) were finding it tough to ride the rollercoaster to fame; a handful of hallucinogenic country-rock sets, right up to 2000’s `Chore Of Enchantment’, should’ve done so much better commercially.
In the meantime, 1994 saw the rhythm pair help form FRIENDS OF DEAN MARTINEZ; their exotic musical instruments being put to good use: harps, accordions, marimba and vibraphone were all added to the mix of jazzy lounge music, which, in turn, was so bad it was almost brilliant. But they were to split after a disagreement with co-founder Bill Elm, who continued to lead the band after Sub Pop set `The Shadow Of Your Smile’ (1995).
Session work followed for the likes of BARBARA MANNING, RICHARD BUCKNER and VICTORIA WILLIAMS, but Messrs Burns and Convertino wanted more than just a platform to build on their strong musical prowess. Having hatched a plan to carry on their mariachi manifesto late in ‘95, a plan that included recording the lo-fi porch soundscape, SPOKE (1996) {*7} – the duo billed as “Spoke” for the German label Hausmusik – the LP caught the attention of Quarterstick Records (an affiliate of Touch And Go), who released it in America, by CALEXICO, in August 1997. The clash of percussion, the bold beat of the bass, accordions, geetars and ice-cream vans, this band could gate-crash your grandmother’s funeral – and you’d let them! 19 tracks, and none of them “Friends of Dean Martin”, this was not lo-fi, this was horizontal and funereal, with every track more movingly surreal than the next. Short surges of instrumental power by way of `The Haul’ and `Mazurka’, to proper pieces `Low Expectations’, `Sanchez’ and `Wash’, it was like watching a cowboy movie with the screen partially covered.
If one was looking to expand on the sadcore music of the GIANT SAND trio, then the OP8 set (`Slush’) of ’97, featuring at its head LISA GERMANO, was worth searching out.
With GELB on hand (on keyboards actually), 1998’s THE BLACK LIGHT {*9} was, too many CALEXICO acolytes, a wondrous set of songs, belying the texture and soundscape of the desert, presented in full CinemaScope from `Gypsy’s Curse’ to `Frontera’, with compelling UK singles `The Ride, Pt.II’ and `Stray’ (plus the WAITS-esque title track), lodged somewhere poignantly in between.
A similar energy could be heard on the follow-up, HOT RAIL (2000) {*7}. Much the same MORRICONE-meets-COODER experience (almost like a part 2), the record was slightly inferior, but once again treating listeners to the breezy desert-rock experience a la UK singles `Ballad Of Cable Hogue’ and `Service And Repair’. Whether it be spooky soundtrack, avant-jazz or Americana country-blues, CALEXICO were fast becoming a dark alternative to anything served up on the other side of the sprawling tracks. Meanwhile, Convertino and Burns moonlighted with yet another outfit, ABBC, along with Parisian duo Naim Amor and Thomas Belhom (the AB part of the moniker). Their one-off collaborative work, TETE A TETE {*6} was released in the spring of 2001; think eerie westerns and experimental textured jazz.
CALEXICO’s fourth album came in the shape of FEAST OF WIRE (2003) {*7}, a dark and dusty follow-up to a mini-set collection of rarity mixes (EVEN MY SURE THINGS FALL THROUGH (2001) {*6}), which showcased their rendition of AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB’s `Chanel No.5’. Sticking along the same lines, the Convertino/Burns partnership had seemed to restrain itself, with the 2003 songs either cut short or lacking in the epic intensity of some of their earlier work. Tracks such as `Dub Latino’, `Black Heart’ and `Quattro (Words Drift In)’ all had that sparse desert drift to them, but essentially it seemed as if the duo had re-worked the same album three times over, as the template for their innovative early work. But then again, music fans were not complaining – CALEXICO kept doing their own thing, whilst their listeners quite happily swung with any cool breeze; `Across The Wire’ and the name-checking `Not Even Stevie Nicks…’ quintessential. The culmination of IRON & WINE and CALEXICO proved too delicious to turn down, as 2005’s EP/mini-set, `In The Reins’, was a winner all round; it also charted at No.135.
For all the vaulting reach of their sound, there was an argument that one of America’s greatest – and most unsung – modern bands had manoeuvred themselves into an aesthetic cul de sac over the course of their decade long career. The idea of Burns, Convertino and Co jangling and ba-ba-ing in 60s harmony, however, was always likely to have hardcore fans running for the pop-art shelter of their ENNIO MORRICONE re-issues. In practice, GARDEN RUIN (2006) {*7} – the album where CALEXICO finally hitched up after endless days and nights in the desert – worked as a decent JD Foster-produced album on its own terms. If lead track `Cruel’ flaunted CALEXICO’s claim as natural inheritors of trad college rock (that surely belonged to WILCO), and the likes of `Bisbee Blue’ was barely recognisable as the Tucson troupe (`Lucky Dime’ made The LOVIN’ SPOONFUL sound dangerous), there was just enough frontier twang, Latin spirit and confidential menace (check the GAINSBOURG-ian `Nom De Plume’) to keep long-time fans interested.
Over the years, the CALEXICO collective selected B-side covers:- `Clothes Of Sand’ (NICK DRAKE), `Tulsa Telephone Book’ (TOM T. HALL), `Driving On 9’ (The MINUTEMEN), `Sundown, Sundown’ (LEE HAZLEWOOD), `Casey’s Last Ride’ (KRIS KRISTOFFERSON), `Alone Again Or’ (LOVE) and `Ocean Of Noise’ (ARCADE FIRE).
Always on the fringes of a major breakthrough in both America and Britain, their minor celebrity status pulled them through on CARRIED TO DUST (2008) {*8}. Opening the set with `Victor Jara’s Hands’, a tribute to Chilean activist/poet who was assassinated some 35 years past, there was further tastes of South America on trumpeter/affiliated member Jacob Valenzuela’s `Inspiracion’; Paul Niehaus was also a bona fide CALEXICO confidante, while there were respective guest spots for Sam Beam (aka IRON & WINE) and TORTOISE’s Doug McCombs on `House of Valparaiso’ and `Contention City’; PIETA BROWN was also involved on vocals.
On the back of a tour supporting ARCADE FIRE and their first fully-committed soundtrack to THE GUARD (2011) {*6}, CALEXICO were signed to Anti Records (City Slang in Europe) for their transatlantic Top 75 entry ALGIERS (2012) {*7}. The title lifted from the community within New Orleans and not the country within Europe, Americana and romantic indie-rock was redolent among the dozen tracks. Converting to Cajun and zydeco without losing their Latin credentials, it was all tumbleweed and horizontal on the simple but effective `Epic’, `Splitter’, `Fortune Teller’ and `Maybe On Monday’ – arguably the set’s best pieces. While one awaited a guest spot for TOM WAITS on `Sinner In The Sea’ (that never happened), Burns’ soft-rock-of-the-70s-vibe packed a punch more in line with DAVID GATES/BREAD.
2015’s EDGE OF THE SUN {*6} was ten days spent in Mexico City’s `Coyoacan’ district, as one of the pieces depicted, while there were plenty peaceful, easy feelings on bookend tracks `Falling From The Sky’ and `Follow The River’, plus an inspired dirge with one of their many guests NEKO CASE on `Tapping On The Line’. Sadly, although it cracked the UK Top 40, it stalled in the un-business end of the US Top 200.
Once again drifting beyond the desert dunes of Tucson, CALEXICO turned up in northern California, where they booked a studio that they nicknamed the Phantom Ship. The resultant set, THE THREAD THAT KEEPS US (2018) {*8}, certainly proved worthwhile for the duo to escape along the West Coast. 15 tracks in all (22 if one counted the bonus iTunes), somehow every piece of Americana/Tejano gelled gracefully or post-grunge-fully (e.g. `Eyes Wide Awake’ and `Dead In The Water’). As the set revealed in other smouldering pieces (i.e. `End Of The World With You’, `The Town & Miss Lorraine’, `Voices In The Field’ and `Another Space’), the burning desire of the unflinching CALEXICO never wavered once.
Reigniting the flame of their “In The Reins” collaborative record alongside IRON & WINE, CALEXICO (and Co) worked once again under the Nashville skyline for 2019’s YEARS TO BURN {*7}; the “Co” were in fact pedal steel guitarist Paul Niehaus and trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela, plus I&W’s stalwart tour auxiliaries, Sebastian Steinberg (bass) and Rob Burger (keyboards). Indeed this joint effort was more of a shared experience composition-wise than its previous about-face billing that saw Beam’s compositions take second fiddle (so to speak) to that of the “then established” band led by of course by Burns and Convertino. Putting that to one side, the widescreen scope of the eight cuts here (including `The Bitter Suite’ medley of `Pajaro – Evil Eye – Tennessee Train’) was welcoming to followers of peaceful/easy/feeling alt-country folk music. Almost in the echoing spirit of the EAGLES, POCO and CROSBY, STILLS & NASH, one could almost bask in the mid-day sun of `Father Mountain’, `What Heaven’s Left’ and the timeless title track.
© MC Strong 1999-2006/GRD-AS // rev-up MCS Apr2015-Feb2018-Jun2019

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