DESERT NOIR, REVISITED Calexico

A
limited edition 12-LP box set showcase an alternate musical history of the
Tucson-based musical mavericks. Check the video trailer, below.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

 

For longstanding Calexico wonks, the tour-only and
“unofficial” website releases under the band’s Our Soil, Our Strength imprint have been treasured goldmines — none of that cutting room-floor detritus or
those vault-cleaner cash-outs for this act. As I once wrote elsewhere, toss
another vocal track or two on these and they’d be indistinguishable,
quality-wise, from the band’s official output.

 

This isn’t meant to imply they could be better. They stand
on their own both musically and as snapshots of destinations along the Calexico
voyage, the “alternate history” that the band members allude to in the liner
notes. For example, Aerocalexico,
from 2001, may have been a collection of compelling studio snippets,
experimental instrumental voyages and homeless songs, but combined together
they read like they always were together — so much so that it’s long been one
of this writer’s favorite Calexico releases, period.

 

And there’s more, as each “collector’s item” carries its own
personality. Travelall, the 2000 LP
they did with Chicago-scenesters Doug McCombs, Noel Kupersmith and Rob Mazurek,
among others, is a marvelous blend of classic Windy City
post rock and the band’s sun-baked noir (it’s not an oxymoron with Calexico).
The Book & the Canal, from 2005,
shows them branching out into more electronica-accented territory, but without
losing their native sound. The all-instrumental songs on Tool Box, recorded in just three days in 2007 to support a European
tour, returned the band – in this case just co-founders Joey Burns and John
Convertino — to its desert-and-border roots just when some wondered if they’d
abandoned them after 2006’s more indie-rock inclined Garden Ruin.

 

Even the two live discs, 2002’s Scraping and 2008’s Ancienne
Belgique — Live In Brussels,
offer bookend examples of a great live band
that’s evolved over the years without losing their capacity to floor a crowd on
any given night.

 

Whichever unofficial release you gravitate toward, from
1999’s six-song Road Map EP to the Circo movie soundtrack from 2010, the
compelling originality of the fare, and the care with which the band delivers
it*, makes all eight releases essential for Calexico fans. And now they’ve made
it easy for listeners by collecting them all together and reissuing them in a
handsome, 12 vinyl-slabs box set (!con download codes! – including a code to access a slew of bonus tracks)
appropriately titled Road Atlas
1998-2011.
They’ve even drafted their former Tucson neighbor and BLURT editor-guru Fred
Mills to pen liner notes for the 40-page booklet.

 

*(Author’s Note: How much care does Calexico put into these in general? When this reporter
mail-ordered Aerocalexico in 2001, it
showed up with a hand-written thank-you note from Joey Burns and wrapped in
some pages of the local weekly — mind you, not Tucson’s local weekly, but
Charlotte, North Carolina’s local weekly. I live in Charlotte, by the way. As if that wasn’t
curious enough, Burns had circled a tiny ad for the best and most
off-the-beaten-path Mexican food eatery in town, and done so for a place that,
to my geeky knowledge, Calexico has never played.)

 

(the complete box set)

 

 

 

Most of the pleasure from the studio sets in this collection
stems from the interplay between Burns and drummer Convertino, where most
Calexico songs begin their lives. The duo’s intuition allows them to converse
on an organic level you rarely hear from rock musicians; they seem to reside
full-time in that mystical pocket most rockers hope to visit on occasion. Of
course, the better the musician, the more fruitful the improvisations – Burns
is classically trained, Convertino’s jazz chops are significant, and they’ve
played together forever since beginning as the rhythm section for Howe Gelb’s
Giant Sand incarnations in the early ‘90s (they also were original members of
the Friends of Dean Martinez ensemble). In the early Calexico years, Burns and
Convertino often toured alone, too, woodshedding with audiences. They still
occasionally begin shows with an improvised intro before the rest of the
collective joins in.

 

As for the 16-song sampler tapping selected choice tracks
from the box set, Burns and Convertino seem to have taken as much care
assembling this as they have the larger box’s entire contents over the years.
You know this because, while personal preferences may dictate which tracks you
also wish were included, it’s difficult to argue with any that are here (though
the version of “Man Made Lake,” taken from the 2008 live disc, finds
the band replacing nuanced instrumental moods with tumultuous indie noise to
poorer effect).

 

For instance, are you going to say to “no” to the band’s
haunting Spaghetti Western classic “Glowing Heart of the World” from Road Map, with which they dropped jaws
(including this one) and opened live sets in the early years? (You are not.)
Ditto for Burns’ mournful nylon-stringed renditions of Aerocalexico‘s “All The Pretty Horses” and “Gift X-Change,” the
former colored by Convertino’s brushed beats and pedal steel laments – the band
at their dusky best – and the latter’s soulful bowed bass and cello leavened by
vibes that suggest snowfall in the desert.

 

Calexico may be known primarily for these border-blending
hybrids and moody desert-noir compositions, but their palate takes in even
more. There’s the band’s jazz-funk groove (represented here by Tool Box‘s “Detroit Steam” and Travelall‘s brilliant “Cachaca”), and
“Half a Smidge” and “Ghostwriter” from the Book
& the Canal,
straight-forward twangers reflecting the band’s C&W
influences. There’s also “Waitamo,” the Yo La Tengo-like cruiser from Tool Box that shows Calexico’s affinity
with their indie rock peers, and the 90 seconds of samples, beats and organ
noise on Circo‘s “Entrenando a los
Tigres,” which blends in the band’s fondness for their home region’s
Native American rhythms.

 

As for what’s missing? Well, the sampler lacks any of the
more adventurous extended moody instrumentals — “Sequoia,” the beautifully
forlorn 7-minute experimental piece from Aerocalexico built on overlapping treatments of bowed bass, cello and nylon guitar, could
have replaced the original “Crystal Frontier” from that same release (heard
anyway in two more versions on the official 2001 EP release, Even My Sure Things Fall Through), and
any of the band’s longer excursions from Travelall would have been welcome additions, too. Also missing are their Euro-friendly numbers, like the chanson accordion waltzes or Erik Satie-influenced impressions that
pop up occasionally throughout the band’s catalog.

 

But these quibbles are mostly inside baseball for diehards.
As an introduction to one of America’s
most inventive and original bands, and as a taste from one of the true treasure
troves from anybody’s “secondary” catalog, this is a superb collection.

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