If you're at all familiar with The Sadies' excellent 2002 album Stories Often Told, and then give Calexico's latest CD a spin, you can't help but be struck by the fact that both records share several similarities. Both The Sadies and Calexico are two of the best ('scuse the term) alt-country bands in existence right now. Key members of both bands played significant backing roles on Neko Case's terrific recent album Blacklisted. They both have a Canadian connection (The Sadies hail from Toronto, Calexico singer Joey Burns was born in Montreal). They both spice up their albums with several instrumentals of the highly theatrical, sweeping variety, heavily influenced by the film scores of Ennio Morricone. Both bands evoke thoughts of rugged landscapes, while at the same time, daring to stretch their sound beyond the constraints of the rather narrow-sounding "alt-country" label. And like Stories Often Told, Calexico's new album, Feast of Wire, is a bit of a grower, but it's one that wins you over in the end.
Whereas The Sadies bring to mind cold, snowy winters and roaring wood-burning stoves, Calexico immediately make you think of withering heat and scorching desert vistas. Like the California border town that the band is named after, Calexico are masters at blending the country twang of the American South with the colorful mariachi sounds of Mexico. Following up their very good 2000 album The Hot Rail, Feast of Wire continues the steady progression of the band's sound, blending in additional styles such as rock, folk, and jazz. Anchored by singer/multi-instrumental whiz Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino (both former members of seminal alt-country band Giant Sand), Calexico has crafted an album that's rich in variety, yet still manages to maintain a cohesive sound throughout.
Feast of Wire gets off to an unassuming start on the stately, accordion-infused "Sunken Waltz", with Burns's smooth tenor voice sounding in fine form, while "Quattro (World Drifts In)", the album's first single, veers off into more diverse territory, with ethereal, almost indecipherable lyrics backed up by the contrasting combination of a bossa nova-style beat, swirling pedal steel guitar and a more down-to-earth-sounding horn section. On the gentle ballad "Woven Birds", Burns sounds like a traditional mariachi more than anything else, singing plaintively and gently playing acoustic guitar. A grim ballad about Mexicans crossing the US border, "Across the Wire" dives headlong into Mexican folk music, with its sumptuous horns and arresting lyrical imagery ("Spotted an eagle in the middle of a lake / Resting on cactus and feeding on snakes / The waters recede as the dawn closes in / Revealing a whole lake of sleeping children"). "Guero Canelo" is more lighthearted fare, blending a winsome Latin beat and a call-and-response chorus with, oddly enough, mimicked Speak-and-Spell style verses. The ominous "No Doze", with its electric guitar feedback and bowed bass sounding very much like like rolling thunder, closes the album on an unsettling note, as if hinting at a very cold night after a sweltering day of tequila-fueled kicks.
The album's three finest moments couldn't be more different. The dirge-like, and aptly titled, "Black Heart" features screeching strings, distorted drums by Convertino, and guitar feedback offset by deliberate upright bass and chiming rhythm guitar, with Burns's lyrics sounding more melancholy than ever, as he drawls, "One man's righteousness is another man's long hard sentence carried out." "Not Even Stevie Nicks...", however, combines a winsome, AM radio-friendly melody with more esoteric lyrics ("With a head like a vulture / And a heart full of hornets / He drives off the cliff / Into the blue . . . Not even she could save him"), in a very similar vein as Wilco's "Kamera" and "Heavy Metal Drummer"; it's most likely the sweetest-sounding song about someone driving a car off a cliff that you'll ever hear. Feast of Wire peaks with the jazz fusion jam "Crumble", in which Calexico utilize a West Coast cool jazz sound, mixed with Latin-tinged beats and a horn section led by muted trumpets, featuring two stellar trumpet and trombone solos, creating a feel not entirely dissimilar to Miles Davis' albums Birth of the Cool and Sketches of Spain. It's a gorgeous track, and it makes you wish that Calexico would continue in this direction.
About a third of Feast of Wire is devoted to instrumental tracks, and, as mentioned earlier, their cinematic quality makes for some rewarding listening, and you often wonder what kind of movie is playing in the band's heads that they're writing the score for. Songs like "Pepita", the pretty "Dub Latina", and the aforementioned "Crumble" work the best, nicely complementing the diverse collection of vocal tracks.
Calexico's Feast of Wire isn't a classic by any stretch, but it's a good, solid album by a band who's proving to be a reliable supplier of consistently good recordings. It's a record that has to be allowed to grow on the listener, and, when given the chance, proves to be nothing short of intoxicating.