Calexico

Hot Rail
(Quarterstick)

Committed: Music From the Miramax Motion Picture
(Chapter III)

Ballad of Cable Hogue
CD Single)

Snapshot from the Lower Sonoran Desert: a steamy Saturday afternoon in July, hurtling across a dusty two-lane blacktop on the edge of Tucson as a local radio station broadcasts a special three-hour program titled Desert Noir. As envisioned by noted DJ Kidd Squidd, this assemblage features the impressionistic likes of Ry Cooder, Scenic, Ennio Morricone, Tarnation, Link Wray and Mojave 3 -- and a heaping helping (at least a dozen tunes' worth) from Tucson's own Joey Burns and John Convertino, who, as Calexico, blend alt-Americana, Mariachi rock and ambient psychedelia with the kind of reserved, eloquent intensity usually associated with seasoned jazz combos.

Clear and present validation of the Calexico aesthetic as Sonoran signpost arrives by way of the group's third album, Hot Rail. It builds upon the strengths of its two critically acclaimed predecessors (The Black Lightwound up on a lot of 1998 year-end best-of lists); it also is a mesmerizing recording, nuanced yet hellishly intense, on its own musical merits.

Highlights? There's the Neil Young-ish country-rock of "Service and Repair," its dusty-booted feel bolstered by the lost highway whine of a pedal steel and the quiet fatalism of Burns' burnished half-drawl. The insistent Latino-cum-lounge jazz throb of "Sonic Wind" hums sweetly along on a bed of minor-key nylon string guitar and vibraphone tones; one thinks of Tim Buckley's investigations circa Starsailor -- if he'd had a Morricone or a Montenegro producing. Eight minutes of "Fade" submits a dazzling display of mood- and dynamics-building as guitar, bass, cello, drums, vibes and cornet (courtesy of Chicago Underground Duo's Rob Mazurek) probe a series of shifting hues and overlapping themes that, joined with Burns' parched whispers of near desperation, define the term "desert noir."

Three of the album's several instrumentals are Mariachi numbers ("El Picador," "Muleta," "Tres Avisos"), which crop up with accordion, marimba, strings and horns fleshing out the arrangements. They give Hot Rail a recurring Mexican cantina-and-bullfight vibe. And the album's most accessible tune, "Ballad of Cable Hogue," is a rocking yarn about escaping the long arm of the law only to find betrayal at the hands of a woman; it boasts deep hipster appeal by way of a killer surf guitar lick, some jaunty horns and a Gainsbourg-Bardot-styled vocal duet between Burns and guest Marianne Dissard, who issues her lines in French.

Significantly, the latter number is also the A-side of Calexico's overseas single, already picking up airplay in Europe and the U.K. Also on the disc are two non-LP, must-hear B-sides: "The Crystal Frontier," another high-plains fable bolstered by some hi-octane funk guitar licks; and "Hard Hat," a gauzy instrumental mirage of ambient textures wrought by vibes, percussion and plucked/bowed strings, all suitable for the mental soundtrack of your choice.

Hold that thought: While the recent Heather Graham/Casey Affleck/Luke Wilson flick Committed appears to have been consigned to a shallow grave in the desert by film critics, its soundtrack disc can be proudly retained in your Calexico collection. Following a handful of none-too-shabby tunes by Don Covay, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash and others come 17 Calexico instrumentals. The group's music always seemed destined for the big screen, and as director Lisa Krueger suggests in the CD booklet's notes, Calexico sounds "beautiful, brave, nakedly sincere, imperfect, mysterious, soulful, searching." Indeed, from soft initial meditation "Bliss/Spokes" (an adaptation of a vocal number originally on Calexico's '97 debut Spoke) to the album's romantic closer "El Morro" (all Spanish guitar twang, hissing percussion and lush cello murmurs, it subtly reprises the opening tune's melodic theme), these numbers -- some half-minute expository impressions, others fully fleshed compositions that wouldn't be unwelcome on a Calexico album proper -- are rich in the kinds of visual components that no doubt will attract further work in Hollywood for the duo.

One doesn't have to be a resident of the arid, spectral quietude that is the Lower Sonoran Desert to appreciate Calexico; glowing press commentary from all corners of the planet, not to mention the most traditional of tributes, the live bootleg (Frankfurt 2000, documenting the group's May visit to Europe, just surfaced among collectors circles), is ample testimony that a lot of people who may never even set foot in Arizona "get it." Therein lies a great irony: Given than neither Burns nor Convertino is an Arizona native (they followed their Giant Sand bandmate Howe Gelb to Tucson in the early '90s), the duo somehow latched onto a sound that, while certainly postmodern, has a crucially authentic regional ring to it. Music is necessarily of the imagination, and musicians are both soothsayers and mythmakers. A generation or two ago, people's impressions of the American desert were formed by Western films and cowboy novels. Calexico, it seems, is the architect for this and the next generation's mental travelogues.

 
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