As you can see from the prominence they get in my sidebar, I'm a huge fan of the Arizona-based indie rock band Calexico. They are often saddled with that pretentiously awful label "post-rock," but what they do is actually better described by another much-maligned label: "fusion." Their particular alchemy of stripped-down lo-fi rock, moody textural subtleties, country folk, surf guitar, film noir soundscapes, and straight-up mariachi seems like it would be almost impossible to pull off without falling into dilettantism, or worse, sneering hipster pastiche, so it's something of a minor miracle that Calexico manage to make it all come together so seamlessly. Of course, it helps that their core members, drummer John Convertino and bassist/guitarist/singer Joey Burns, worked for years together in Giant Sand, and also as a rhythm-section-for-hire.
I'm not sure why Calexico aren't more popular or better known amongst jazz musicians and fans. For starters, the seasoned Burns-Convertino hookup is exceptional, and Volker Zander (who has now mostly taken over on bass, freeing up Burns for frontman duties) meshes seamlessly into the group's southwestern grooves. Convertino is an incredibly versatile and inventive drummer who, in Calexico, plays predominantly with brushes, giving the subtle textures a lot more room to breathe (and, incidentally, helping to prevent their live show from becoming stupidly loud). There are lots of interesting and evocative coloristic touches courtesy of multi-instrumentalists Jacob Valenzuela and Martin Wenk, including lots of mallet percussion (vibes and marimba), accordion, vintage keyboards and synths, and trumpet -- their dual-trumpet sound is key to some of the more mariachi-influenced songs, of course, as well as the harmon-muted, jazz-inflected tracks. Paul Niehaus's pedal steel guitar grounds the proceedings in rootsy country-folk authenticity. While Burns does sing on some tracks, the band's focus -- and its strength -- is instrumental tracks, and they have a cinematic sense of mood, structure, and musical narrative that I find very appealing. (And how can you not love a band that named themselves after the seedy border town where Touch of Evil was filmed?)
This September, they released a critically acclaimed collaboration with Florida singer-songwriter Sam Beam, who records under the name "Iron and Wine." The seven-song EP, In The Reins, has been the best-selling record either one has released, cracking the Billboard Top 200 and being hyped on NPR and MSNBC (whose reviewer apparently called it the best CD of the year). There's a good PopMatters interview with Convertino about this collaboration here.
A while back, I'd promised to review the record for the blog, but I kept putting it off. Because frankly, on first listen, I was kind of underwhelmed. Right out of the gates, I absolutely hated the sound of Sam Beam's voice, which never once rises above a tender whisper. Apparently, lots of people find this incredibly appealing, but I found it infuriating -- at least at first. (It's since grown on me -- but only a little.) The playing (from Burns, Convertino, and co.) is typically strong, of course, but I felt they were constrained by Beam's more standard song structures and and the challenges of accompanying such a limited vocalist. The little oddball moments that I love about Calexico's own records are few and far between -- in fact, the only really memorable one comes early in title track, where mariachi singer Salvador Duran momentarily takes over for Beam. (I want to hear them do an entire EP with that guy!)
Even the predominantly instrumental number, "Red Dust," is hampered by a gradually accelerating groove. Songs whose hook is that they gradually speed up (like MMW's supremely annoying "Bubblehouse") have always struck me as a cheap trick, like the Truck Driver Modulation. Granted, "Red Dust" is a lot more subtle than "Bubblehouse," but still. This is manifestly not what I wanted to hear from one of my favorite bands.
After some repeat listenings, though, I've grown somewhat more fond of the record. Whatever Beam's shortcomings as a vocalist may be, I have to give it up for him as a lyricist. "Prison on Route 41" is a great cowboy waltz about selfishness masquerading as self-righteousness:
There's a prison on route 41
A home to my father, first cousin, and son
And I visit on every weekend
Not with my body
But with prayers that I send
I've a reason for my absentee
And no lack of love for my dear family
And my savior is not Christ the lord
But one named Virginia
Whom I live my life for
Cause I owe mine to her
And I'd rot in that prison for sure
If she'd tossed me aside
And not shown me the way to abide
"A History of Lovers," which gets a fun but kinda generic California pop-R&B backing, is a great story of a sensitive Nice Guy type in well over his head -- and in this case at least, Beam's voice is perfect for the part. "Sixteen, Maybe Less" relies a bit too much on mawkish nostalgia for my taste, and it's maybe a little too obvious a nod to Yo La Tengo, but I gotta admit, it's a very pretty, intimate little song. "Burn That Broken Bed" is probably the closest thing to a track from a Calexico solo record, with harmon-muted trumpets intertwining over a Convertino groove. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the band, the two-chord vamp never really goes anywhere. The closer, "Dead Man's Will," flirts with weepy sentimentality, but is ultimately redeemed by gorgeous vocal harmonies and and undulating marimba+vibes tremolos. The blend of Calexico's usual musical territory with Beam's introverted folkie persona is most satisfying on the opening track, "He Lays In The Reins," which benefits from a propulsive groove as well as the aforementioned out-of-nowhere mariachi relief vocals.
It seems odd that for a band so adept at musical alchemy, whose core is made up of seasoned accompanists like Convertino and Burns, they would fall short of their usual brilliance in this disappointingly conventional and sleepy collaboration. For the yet-unitiated, I recommend getting your Calexico undiluted -- try 1998's moody The Black Light or 2003's scorching Feast of Wire.
Then again, it does seem like I'm the only one to be underwhelmed by In The Reins, so you might want to take my reservations with a grain or two of salt. And some Herradura and lime. Then you can post a drunken, pugnacious rebuttal in the comments. (Please. It ain't no blog without comments, y'know.)
1. Although, ironically, Convertino and Burns hail from Long Island and Montreal, respectively.