Much has been made about Calexico’s ability to dip in and out of musical styles. While here on Hot Rail, their third release to date, the Tucson, Arizona-based band does move between tequila-soaked brass-and-guitars mariachi, abstract instrumentals, loops and percussion and other assorted studio creations, those stylistic forays merely add emphasis to the rural-folk story telling that is the focus of the package. It is not like the instrumentals, whatever their flavour, are simply secondary to the tales of betrayal, disappointment and place that offers no surety or safety. In fact the instrumentals, interspersed between songs, intensify the mood, making the whole collection better and more interesting. One reason is that while Joey Burns is not a bad singer, Burns and partner John Convertino seem to recognize that their greatest strength is as instrumentalists (remember, these guys are well-known for their playing with Giant Sand, Richard Buckner, Victoria Williams, Vic Chestnut and OP8, among others). By playing to that strength, the instrumentals work effectively as soundscapes between songs like the “Ballad of Cable Hogue,” the story of a desert miner’s loss of his hard-earned gold, “Fade,” a meditation on the loss of love, and the evocative “Sonic Wind” with its sense that earth and atmosphere can turn at any moment on any inhabitant.
Although Calexico is clearly a two man operation, Burns and Convertino fill out and invigorate the sound on Hot Rail with many collaborators, performing the collection’s three mariachi numbers with something close to a traditional mariachi band (guitars, trumpet, percussion and violin). A cornet shows up in “Fade,” while on “Service and Repair” a pedal steel underlines the tune’s sad reflection on a world where little is recognized as having lasting value.
This is not music for the cynical or the ironic. With Hot Rail, Calexico offer up well-played, sophisticated music that matches the seriousness of their preoccupations, the loss of trust, the loss of love, and the loss of an environment that can be lived in with harmony and respect.