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Desert Noir

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The pair split from FODM after sessions for the group's second album, 1997's Retrograde, when Elm left for L.A. taking the band's record deal with him. A year earlier, Convertino and Burns had released a self-titled vinyl-only collection of material under the name Spoke on the German Haus Musik Records label. After leaving FODM, Convertino and Burns decided to pursue the project in earnest, rechristening themselves as Calexico and releasing Spoke domestically on Chicago indie Touch and Go's sublabel Quarterstick.

Although more modest in its aims than The Black Light, Spoke offered a cozy lo-fi charm that mixed surf-tinged guitars with cowboy lounge and myriad sparse sonic touches in small bites (most of the album's 19 tracks clock in at under three minutes and some at under 30 seconds).

Following a tour in support of Spoke, Convertino and Burns returned to Tucson in mid-1998 to begin work on a follow-up. The duo retreated to the city's downtown Wavelab studios. Located in an often unpredictably noisy warehouse section, the studio (which has since moved) boasts a vintage two-inch 16-track recording set-up that Burns lovingly refers to as "a beautiful machine." The raw (and un-air-conditioned) studio environment proved to be pivotal in shaping the ambient and often organic feel of the record. "You can't escape the noises there," says Burns. "Whether it's the noise of the trains or sounds from the dance theater next door. You can hear that at the end of a song like 'Blood Flow' -- all these weird screams. We'd have to either stop to wait for the train or the noise to die down or just let it happen. So there's a kind of feel there that's very spontaneous."

That bit of spontaneity complemented Burns and Convertino's collaborative process, which is similarly born out of a mercurial, almost jazzlike sense of improvisation. "We write a lot during the recording process. Songs like the 'Black Light' were done live in the studio," he says. "John and I just play off each other all the time. I'll start playing guitar, and he'll play drums, and we'll build from there. We may add thick texturing and layering of instrumentation, or we'll leave it alone to allow for more space on some songs."

The duo recorded in the sweltering heat of the Naked Pueblo from July until the December chill took over. Over a period of months, the pair invited a group of friends and guests including Gelb, Convertino's wife, Tasha Bundy, steel guitarist Neil Harry, violinist Bridget Keating and a whole cast of talented mariachi trumpeters and guitarists. When they emerged with the tracks that comprise The Black Light, it became clear that the record (featuring 12 instrumental cuts) had managed to pack the varied experiences and influences of the past five years into one coherent and ambitious artistic statement.

Opening with the monstrous twang of "Gypsy's Curse," the tracks range from the smoky Latin jazz of "Fake Fur" and "Sprawl" to the '60s sounding gringo rock of "The Ride (pt II)." The record's diverse stylistic flourishes are complemented throughout by soothing touches of accordion, cello and mandolin.

The album's centerpiece is the three-minute, eight-second "Minas De Cobre." The song, a breathtaking mini-epic, invokes a thousand flickering images and moments. The track begins with the sound of a train whistle cutting though a gentle Spanish guitar. The soft strumming quickly fades, signaling a vibrant burst of full mariachi brass that speeds to its seeming conclusion, but it's merely the beginning of another transition -- a pulsating climax worthy of Ennino Morricone's most dramatic showdown score. The song comes full circle as it closes by segueing into the familiar strains of the opening movement.

While the music plays on one (very panoramic) level, Burns' lyrics tell an equally broad yet different tale. His hushed, half-spoken, half-sung tales trace the travels of a hapless loner who wanders his way though a maze of unlikely adventures. Burns' terse prose paints a redemptive road story replete with a protagonist who begins as a hotel worker, later joins a Mexican circus and encounters a slew of David Lynchian characters along the way. Burns' vivid story-songs contain elements of Lee Hazelwood's brisk spoken narratives combined with the skewed cinematic sensibility of filmmakers like Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Sam Peckinpah (think Hazelwood's small-town diary Trouble Is a Lonesome Town crossed with Jarmusch's Dead Man and dashes of Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia).

Burns admits that in crafting the lyrics he made a conscious, albeit understated, effort to create something of a "neo-country concept" album. "It all felt like it was coming together kind of naturally. So in writing the lyrics for the five or so songs on the record that have words, I just decided to tie them in together in my head. I wrote down a rough sketch of the story line, but I didn't want to hit anybody over the head with this kind of idea of a story or a concept record." It's that very lack of pretension that ultimately makes The Black Light so intriguing.

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Bob Mehr
Contact: Bob Mehr