Calexico is the loose collective surrounding Joey Burns and John Convertino, a duo who have enjoyed a busy career as an integral part of Giant Sand, and as musicians for artists such as Richard Buckner, Barbara Manning, and Victoria Williams. Chances are, if a quirky songwriter’s made an album in the past five or six years, Burns and Convertino have been somehow involved.
The pair created Calexico as a way of exploring the southwestern vibes of their Tuscon home, with more form than the free-range looseness that characterizes Giant Sand. Calexico’s work can stretch out and wander, let there be no doubt, but their templates seem to originate more from pre-fusion jazz than some campfire vibe. Equal parts Sketches of Spain elegance and Cormac McCarthy border tales, Calexico’s music provides a score for that mythic southwest that probably never existed in the frontier days and which almost certainly doesn’t exist in these times of border politics and broken dreams.
The EP Even My Sure Things Fall Through follows the band’s 2000 release, The Hot Rail, an album that found them taking their matador ‘n’ low-rider aesthetic into more stately and experimental territory. The Hot Rail was marked by moments of sublime beauty and by stretches of musical road that didn’t seem to go anywhere, but it was a quantum leap forward for the band. The Black Light might have been stronger, but The Hot Rail may turn out to be the watershed album. Even My Sure Things Fall Through follows through on the band’s new direction.
An instrumental take of “Sonic Wind” starts things off, lightly pinging its way into our ears like a jazzy riff on the opening notes of the Star Trek theme. No insult intended to Burns’s vocals or lyrics on the original, but the instrumental version found here gains a majesty and personality that it lacked before. Next is “Crystal Frontier (Widescreen Version)”, with mariachi horns and an insistent acoustic guitar rhythm driving Burns’s tale of life and death on the parched fringes of society. It stands in marked contrast to the acoustic version of “Crystal Frontier” that comes later on the disc. Following the song’s cinematic titling, the Widescreen Version is the epic, lives-at-stake portion that plays over the action sequence, but the stark and slow acoustic version plays as the camera pulls out from the desert, away from characters who have died largely uncelebrated, unfulfilled, and forgotten. Ini scope and in mood, they’re both marked improvements on the original version that appears on the group’s tour-only CD, AeroCalexico.
The disc’s strongest track is “Crooked Road and the Briar”, which is half murder ballad, half fairy tale (as if there’s much difference in many cases). Lean and relentless, the song hurtles towards the tragedy of a lynching, snapping from purposely vague lyrics to the couplet “throw a rope ’round his neck / see if he still hollers.” Archetypal in its presentation, brutal in its end, it gives these Southern ears a chill.
However, not everything on Even My Sure Things Fall Through is so strong. “Hard Hat” is a clanky affair of the sort that Tom Waits probably hums when he’s doing his dishes. It might give me a startle if I woke up in the middle of it, but it still doesn’t go very far as a song. Likewise, “Chanel No. 5” is pleasant and airy, but not up to Calexico’s evocative standards. That’s the way of Calexico, though — when things click, you’ll be hard pressed to find modern music that’s stronger. And even when the band falters, it’s not for lack of ambition. Even My Sure Things Fall Through serves as a welcome extension of The Hot Rail, as an album that rounds out some of the band’s rough edges and which, in the case of “Crystal Frontier”, clarifies their most important themes.