Sunday, February 21, 2010

Music from the border - Calexico 'Feast of Wire'

Calexico lies on the border of California and Mexico and, while it’s not exactly the home of the Tucson Arizona based band of the same name, their music is very much inspired by the blend of American and Mexican flavours and so it was surely an apt name for this country/roots/tex-mex sextet to adopt.

Their 2003 album, Feast of Wire, has been sitting, unattended to, on my shelf for some time now and, on a sluggish summery Sunday afternoon like today, it seemed just the right thing to reach for.

Not that you should expect Calexico to be a simple dialogue between its American and its Mexican influences. If you’re looking for something to have in the background while you sit and snooze in the sun, sipping on your tequila, then Calexico will be sorely wasted. This is music that takes in a whole lot of layers and dimensions all at once, music that gives everything a tinge, a tint, of something else. It’s music that deserves a close listen.

The richness of the sound, often full with soft harmonies, strings and guitars, belies the country/folk-like unfussiness of the music, spiced here and there with the zing and zest of Mexican brass. This is music is very much music of the border.

And yet Feast of Wire takes a very unusual journey along that border, mixing Latin and American sounds and colours, creating a sound-world that is cosmopolitan not only by its infusion of cultures, but by its blend of light and dark. Here the conventional ideas about what makes music, and ultimately life, happy or sad are broken down and always each seems to be part of the other. It makes for an emotional complexity that somehow you feel could not have been achieved in music that did not straddle itself across two cultures, as Calexico does.

The effect it leaves you with is strange – you are left a little pensive, and yet somehow strangely comforted, too. There’s a sense of wisdom here, a kind of laid back, slightly weary, warmth to the music – music that, even from the opening bars of ‘Sunken Waltz’, feels like it has seen a lot.

For me, perhaps the most potent expression of all this is in ‘Black Heart’, which flows with sad, languid strings, haunted and troubled, descending like a heart sinking into hopelessness, like tears falling – it’s music of strange, poignant beauty and seems to capture much of the tired, worn out weariness that permeates this album, with songs that are often tottering on the edge between a harsh life and a good death; sometimes falling over it, like in the deceptively bouncy suicide tale of ‘Not even Stevie Nicks …’.

The music of the descending strings works a little like a leitmotif throughout the album – reappearing here and there, like in ‘Dub Latino’, where it returns electrified but still sad and lamenting, or in the lonely ‘No Doze’ where, now given first to a solo guitar and then eventually to cellos, it brings the album to a restful, if still heartbroken, close.

And yet these songs, sad as they are, seem to somehow avoid being depressing – listen to the gentle, smooth flow of ‘Woven birds’, its yielding, calming harmonies, or to the contemplative beauty of ‘The Book and the Canal’, with cold piano and warm cello, and you begin to see that here sadness is not so much a hostile intruder, but a comforting friend.

Or listen to ‘Across the Wire’, with its Tejano horns casting a deceiving, illusory light on the song’s bleak words about a world falling apart.

Feast of Wire is a truly unique album – one that is able to present all these contrasts without making them sound like contradictions. It’s an album that will lift your spirits and calm them at the same time – an album to shout and clap to, and to be quiet to.

Thanks to Marty R for introducing me to Calexico.

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