The annual sales of Valium must partly be driven by the parents of musicians who lie awake at night fretting, Why can't he get a real job? Yet there are other parents who, like characters out of some quaint children's story, rear their kids to be songbirds, gathering the family around the piano every night for hearty reprisals of favorites-post-rock 'n' roll revolution types who constantly play groovy records, turning the youngsters on to great music of a bygone era.
The two principal members of Arizona band Calexico-Joey Burns and John Convertino-both come from the latter mold. The two have been playing together for over 10 years, first as the rhythm section of experimental country act Giant Sand, and, since 1996, as the southwestern-flavored Calexico.
Even when the duo takes a break from Calexico, they often end up playing together, as in their recent work with alt-country sensualist, Neko Case.
“[Joey] comes from a big family who, like mine, were very involved with music, and a lot of the same kinds of music,” Convertino says. “I think we just really got along because of upbringing-we share a sense of humor. And then there was meeting each other's families, the wacky parents. When I talk about my mom sitting at the piano playing the show tunes, he's like, ‘Oh yeah, my mom did that too.'”
So Calexico (actually, a six-piece that revolves around the two-man nucleus) is the result of two guys steeped early and often in disparate styles of music, from soundtrack music to mariachi, low-fi alt-country to classically cloaked instrumentals.
As part of the roster of influential indie label Touch and Go (Jesus Lizard then, Black Heart Procession now), Calexico is probably the most traditional. At a recent show at the Casbah, a local music aficionado commented, “They're not as alternative as everyone thinks.”
And as the band waltzed through swanky, sultry Latin ballads that night, it was easy to agree. The sublimely beautiful music may eventually bless the soundtrack to a David Lynch film, but it will be the safest bit of noir.
The band's past two releases, The Black Light and Hot Rail, have played up their Latin influences with nylon stringed guitar, Mariachi horns and Latin rhythms. But Convertino says their new album, Feast of Wire, is distinct in many ways from their past work.
“With our name, and being from Tucson, and with all our work with Mariachi de Luz [a Tucson-based Mariachi band], we've done a lot already with our Latin interests. We wanted to emphasize some of the other elements in our music on this record.”
And there is no shortage of elements to emphasize. In the album's credits, Burns, in addition to being vocalist, is credited with a Prince-like number of 14 instruments, including upright bass, mandolin, banjo and vibraphone. Additional musicians add pedal steel, trumpet, trombone, and on several tracks, lush, brooding strings.
Convertino says that for the recording of Feast of Wire-which took place over the course of a year in Tucson-they wanted to utilize the entire band. Whereas on their first two releases, Convertino would have matched Burns' ridiculous amount of multi-tasking, he wanted to recede back into the singular role of drummer. Which means that Calexico-originally started as a side project-has developed into its own stable entity.
And because of the inclusiveness, Feast of Wire boasts more variation than any of Calexico's previous albums. It highlights direct, deep emotion, be it through a pained Willie Nelson-tinged campfire song or a plaintive jazz-based instrumental. There is less cinematic picture painting, less obvious evocation of spaghetti western imagery than on past releases.
Yet a Calexico album wouldn't be a Calexico album without spacious desert soundscapes, would it?
Assuringly, Convertino admits, “There are still a few songs that have that Ennio Morricone feeling.”