Calexico‘s last full-length effort, 2003’s Feast of Wire, found them merging their established Southwestern sounds with more pop-oriented material, showing most of the world that they aren’t a mariachi-fueled one-trick pony. Never mind that over the course of their career, the band had already proven time and time again that they could be jazzy, experimental, or world-flavored as well as any other “rock” band out there. Even if parts of it dragged, Feast of Wire definitely captured the band finding new ways of expressing itself in the studio.
Be that as it may, Calexico in a live setting can make your jaw drop. First and foremost are those horns, cutting through whatever ironic hipsterism the crowd may have brought in under their coats. Then there are the mariachi rhythms that Joey Burns, John Convertino, and company dish out—a sure cure for that weird standing-still-in-utter-appreciation thing that most of us rock fans tend to do. Sure, “The Black Light” may hold echoes of Dave Brubeck, but Calexico’s bread and butter is the Southwestern groove that they’ve perfected over the course of six albums.
Convict Pool, by and large, returns to those roots, leaving the pop leanings of Feast of Wire behind for now. A cover of Love’s “Alone Again Or” (which had flamenco touches to begin with) kicks things off; aided by Swedish singer/songwriter Nicolai Dunger, Calexico make a spirited run through the song that maintains the original’s spirit. “Convict Pool”, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to really go anywhere. Stripped down to just Burns on acoustic guitar and Convertino on drums, the lo-fi song mainly feels like a sketch for a much grander song.
“Si Tu Disais”, a Francoiz Breut cover (Burns sang on Breut’s 2001 album, Vingt a Trente Mille Jours), returns to a full-band sound, offering sweet, sweet, sweet interplay between pedal steel guitar and the trumpets of Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela. The surprisingly good fit on Convict Pool, though, is the band’s cover of the Minutemen’s “Corona”—the original’s polka-ish bounce is right in Calexico’s wheelhouse. Calexico should just open their shows with this one from now on.
“Praskovia” tinkers with a center-ring circus vibe that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Firewater or Tom Waits album, but it never really gets off the ground as anything other than a nice showcase for Valenzuela and Wenk’s trumpet work. Of the originals, “Sirena” is the disc’s strongest cut (and maybe the disc’s strongest song overall, even counting “Corona”). Its brisk pace and siren-like backing vocals are a perfect match for Burns’ fantastic imagery (example: “dancing like a ghost haunting the shore”), and as usual, the band’s horns give it an extra push. One thing Burns never seems to get any credit for is his ability to tap into a magic-realist vibe with his lyrics, a vibe that “Sirena” places front and center.
Overall, Convict Pool doesn’t push Calexico’s sound in any new directions, but it works pretty well as a tide-me-over until the next tour or album. It offers some new covers sure to be a hit with fans, and at least one original that’s as strong as anything the band’s done. Plus, as an added bonus, it includes the video for the El Kabong Rides Again short (featuring an edit of “Minas de Cobre”) that used to run on Cartoon Network. That’s a pretty good bit of return on the price of an EP.