Border Crossing

Through its nods to tradition and embrace of innovation, Calexico emerges as a desert bloom

Whether or not it's some nebulous spirit of Tucson, the band is developing a distinct aesthetic that's consistently surprising and ambitious. The band's latest full-length, Hot Rail, released earlier this year on Touch & Go, is its most cohesive yet, a marriage of the slow, pensive elements found on Spoke and the multicultural intensity of The Black Light. On the album, Burns and Convertino man no fewer than six instruments each (Burns on drums, vibes, marimba, organ, percussion and accordion; Convertino on bass, guitar, cello, keys, accordion and organ, as well as vocals) and employ the talents of a cast of eight players, including cornetist Rob Mazurek, better known for his expressive meanderings with a variety of Chicago jazz outfits like Tortoise and the Chicago Underground Trio. As likely to evoke Serge Gainsbourg as John Wayne -- the "Ballad of Cable Hogue" pairs a galloping Peckinpah narrative with spoken vocal interludes by a sultry French woman named Marianne Dissard -- the album finds Calexico toying more confidently with a variety of styles. There's a studied yet playful quality to the album that suggests Calexico is comfortable channeling both Neil Young ("Service and Repair") and the Mexican bands just 50 miles south of Tucson. This element of contrast on Hot Rail seems like an extension of the band's view of itself -- and its hometown.

"There's so many contradictions here that I find very interesting and exciting," Burns says. "When you're in downtown Tucson, it's almost like you're in a different place -- a combination of the Third World, Mexico City and Europe. There's no water. It's brown, it's infinite. It's remote. And yet, in a way, it's a sprawling metropolis. It's hard to define. I like to think that we're kind of the same way."

Burns and Convertino are clearly not timid about navigating new territory that has more to do with futurism than tradition. Possibly appeasing those who describe their music as "a soundtrack to a film that hasn't been made," Calexico provided the bulk of the music for Committed, a comedy starring über-babe Heather Graham that features plenty of Arizona scenery and that disappeared from theaters faster than a highway mirage. Calexico's 17 instrumental contributions are the kind of sparse and skeletal mood music that begs a story -- and lends itself to all of those Morricone-esque comparisons.

Around the same time as the Committed recording, the band completed Descamino -- a vinyl-only EP that saw release last spring -- with Tortoise bassist Doug McCombs and producer Bundy K. Brown, a collection that just might find Calexico an audience among fans of obscure trance electronica.

"It's our first exploration of electronic music," Burns says. "It's this pseudo-ambient kind of sound sculpture. Doug plays an electric six-string bass, and Bundy K. just kind of went crazy on the remixes. It was a chance for us to kind of go astray, do something totally different. I absolutely love it. I love listening to it."

Those who find themselves at one of Calexico's live shows during its current tour will enjoy ample exposure to both aspects of the band's psyche: While Burns and Convertino will perform as a duo for the first portion of the performance, they will be joined onstage by Luse de Luna, a traditional, Tucson-based mariachi band that the pair has worked with, and learned from, during the past year (Luse de Luna will be performing at the band's upcoming Nita's Hideaway gig). The combo joined Calexico on a recent tour of Europe, and, according to Burns, the response was encouraging.

"I think a lot of people think of mariachi in a very stereotypical way," he says. "But there is a fantastic tradition there that goes well beyond the stuff you hear in a Taco Bell commercial. We're hoping that by bringing these guys on the road, we can expose them to people who might never have heard a real mariachi band before, and maybe we can open their eyes to some great music. Kind of like Ry Cooder did with the Buena Vista Social Club."

Whether they mean to or not, Calexico is proving that there is something going on in this weird, blue desert besides border crossings and the slow decomposition of discarded beer bottles and skeletons. There is music. And it's not going anywhere.

Calexico is scheduled to perform on Friday, August 4, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with Luse de Luna, and Morris Tepper. Showtime is 9 p.m.

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