PRODIGAL SUN Calexico

There’s something about
the Tucson
band’s music that gets under your skin and into your gut.

BY FRED MILLS

 

As you’ve heard, our cover feature for the July-August issue
of the digital mag BLURT will be Calexico. The Tucson-based sonic maestros —
multiinstrumentalists Joey Burns and John Convertino, plus co-conspirators —
have a new album, Carried To Dust,
due Sept. 9 from Quarterstick/Touch & Go, and it is, in a word,
astonishing, one of those true “artistic leap forwards” that we in the press
are so fond of blathering on and on about (sometimes to our eventual
discredit).

 

“Carried to Dust,”
writes BLURT contributor (and Shuffle mag
editor) John Schacht, who penned the Calexico story for us, “reads like a
crystallization of all things Calexico: familiar elements refracted into
exhilarating new sonic territories.”

 

Well, guess what? Schacht’s right — believe the hype this
time. “Exhilarating” is the perfect word for the album.

 

From thrumming, pop-with-Mariachi opener “Victor Jara’s Hands”
and the tingly, gossamer “Two Silver Trees” (which unfolds so cinematically
it’s like a sense memory from some long-ago film, inducing spontaneous shivers
of delight) to the stark desert noir twang (more on that in a sec) of “Bend to
the Road” and minimalist, atmospheric closer “Contention City,” Carried to Dust is, indeed, pure
Calexico. Yet it’s also a striking departure from 2006’s Garden of Ruin,
which was more rock-oriented and, to some, needlessly abandoned some of the
band’s sonic signatures. Not that it was a weak record, merely a departure. Put
another way, if Garden of Ruin was
the album that Calexico took out of the desert and presented to the world (the
band toured the entire planet to promote
the record), then Carried to Dust perhaps represents more of a homecoming, a re-embracing of all the elements of
Tucson and of the desert that made Calexico special in the first place.

 

It took the band two years to find their way back home, as
Convertino told me in a recent conversation. “Our pattern [has been to] tour a
record for a year solid, do the fun tours, like Japan and southern Europe, the
stranger kind of tours, and then take some time off,” he said, calling from
Tucson. “And in that time off, that’s when we start collecting new material, I
start working with Joey one-on-one, we’re talking about things.

 

“But you know, you really gotta give yourself a break after
all that touring. You gotta put the sticks away. So that’s why it takes awhile
to get another record out. It’s definitely not for lack of material. Joey’s
always got something he’s doing or working on. And we love to collaborate and
work with other people, so that takes up time, too.”

 

Indeed, “collaborate” is an action verb in the Calexico
universe. In addition to Calexico mainstays Paul Niehaus, Volker Zander, Martin
Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela, the new album features guests Sam Beam of Iron and
Wine (who’s a good friend of the band, having worked with them in the past),
Tortoise/Brokeback guitar whiz Doug McCombs, singer-songwriter Pieta Brown,
Amparo Sanchez (of Amparanoia), Jairo Zavala, and Willie Nelson’s harp player
Mickey Raphael. Convertino notes that while the basic tracks were recorded
mostly by him and Burns and then brought to the band, “in coming up with some
of the chord changes and arrangements, we had some really great collaborations”
and that the surprises wrought through spontaneity are often what help make
recording an album as exciting as performing live. “It was a lot of fun,” he
said, in a characteristic bit of Convertino understatement, of making Carried To Dust.

 

Yours truly lived in Tucson
for ten years, and during that time Calexico formed, first operating as a side
project of Burns and Convertino’s while they were still in Giant Sand and later
as a standalone entity. It always seemed to me that Calexico’s sound really did
carry the echoes and rhythms of my desert home, and one time in a review of the
band I dropped the term desert noir which was subsequently picked up by numerous other journalists for their own Calexico
observations. Eventually, of course, as the band refined and expanded its
sound, that simplistic description grew too restrictive — and I moved on to
other equally simplistic ones as I struggled to keep up with Calexico’s rapid
evolution!

 

Then a couple of years ago I was listening to an NPR feature
on the band, and I heard Joey Burns mentioning my name on-air and how that term
I coined had been perfect to describe what they’d been aiming for, at least
initially. I brought that up with Convertino and he chuckled, then commented,
“You know, your label really helped us a lot! I really appreciated it! And I
don’t really mind the associations. [But] a lot of songs don’t sound like it at
all. And more than anything, the mariachi influence and the trumpet fanfare, I
think, has been overly focused on. And it doesn’t bum me out really; I just
kinda wish that wasn’t so much the focus [of writers].”

 

Inevitably, though, with much of Carried To Dust sounding more like “the old,” pre-Garden Ruin Calexico, those kinds of
associations will be bandied about in the press once more. Which maybe isn’t
such a bad thing. So many artists spend their entire creative lives trying to
break free of the perceived “shackles” that are their roots, it’s refreshing to
know that others would prefer to nurture and signpost those roots as still
vital and important to them, still key elements of their identity.

 

As Convertino and I were catching up, he was in his car
taking his daughter to the dentist. Full disclosure: I often miss my adopted
city of ten years — I moved back home to N.C. in 2001 — so I couldn’t resist
begging him to tell me what street he was on, what landmarks he was passing. He
accommodated me: driving west on Grant Road, he was headed towards Oracle Road,
which would then take him north up towards the foothills, a path I had driven
often while living in Tucson, and therefore a description that brought visual
memories back instantly. It was a warm feeling, not unlike feeling the
lingering rays of a late afternoon Arizona
sun playing across your face before it dips below the ring of mountains and
gives way to dusk.

 

That’s how Calexico’s music affects me somehow, as this
exchange will perhaps illuminate.

 

ME: You know, last
year here in N.C. I went to see that movie Before
the Music Dies
, where Joey is interviewed in it, and then there’s the live segment
where Calexico comes onstage to play. And I’m sitting in the theater watching
this on the big screen, and all of a sudden I felt very, very deeply homesick
for the desert and for Tucson.

 

CONVERTINO: A
friend of mine who’s in France
said something similar about whenever she listens to Calexico. I’d like to
think that we do carry some of that in our music. Living here and in the
Southwest, there’s something about it that gets under your skin and into your
gut.

 

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