“Washed my face in the rivers of empire…” from “Sunken Waltz”
When I discovered Calexico (courtesy of a mix CD from my friend Rebecca) in the fall of 2003, I was in a period of major transition, moving to Chicago to start a new life, my quote unquote adult life. Although familiar to me by way of visits to see my sister, Chicago as “home” was a foreign and unknown entity, an undiscovered urban country. Fittingly, Calexico’s Feast of Wire served as the soundtrack of those early day of underemployment, late-night diners, excursions down unknown alleys and boulevards, impromptu parties in abandoned warehouses on the outskirts of gentrification, and endless possibilities. Chicago was my new frontier. As their name indicates, Calexico as a band has always explored the intersection between Old and New World traditions at the border of “American” empire (see the opening line to Feast of Wire above both a figurative musing and a literal statement of fact.) The sound is decidedly rustic, evincing the romantic quality of the hinterland (or perhaps the city slicker’s dream of the frontier; I’m not remiss from nostalgia). Despite the urban trappings of my new reality, the less populated quiet abandon of my neighborhood (a pseudo artsy-bohemian enclave intermixed with Mexican and Puerto Rican families at the beginning stages of mass exodus brought on by the rapid re-development) seemed to resonate in the musical and narrative landscape of Calexico’s anachronistic, cross-cultural blends of southwestern country, mexican folk and European gypsy spunk. (It wasn’t uncommon to walk down the street of my ‘hood and hear the sounds of country western, bluegrass, Mexican, Polish and Ukrainian emanating from shops, restaurants, and bars alike.) It was eclectic, diverse, earth-worn emotionalism and breathtakingly epic and filmic. Joey Burns’ storytelling was a sweet siren song of an unknown, undiscovered American dream, an untraveled yet untraceable landscape. It both beckoned the pilgrim with its dream-like quality while warning of the hard reality of frontier’s end. In short it shifted and expanded the way I looked at music. Feast of Wireis both a work of sonic ingenuity and lyrical creativity. For a glimpse into its genius listen to it here: Calexico – Feast of Wire.
A decade later, the boys of Calexico (Joey Burns and John Convertino based out of Tuscon, Arizona) continue to churn more tales of other American locales where time and culture move at different paces from our wi-fi driven urban jungles. Algiers is another chapter along their journey that has produced some of the most unique and beautiful songs in the Alt/Insurgent Country canon, combining the epic and expansive quality of Cowboy ballads and spaghetti westerns (think Ennio Morricone) with the rhythms, horns, and percussion of Mexican Mariachi and European Gypsy traditions (think Beirut’s Gulag Orkestar). Whereas the previous records used the southwest as their cultural and geographic port of departure, Algiers turns both it sights and sound towards the Northern Gulf Coast with its rich tradition of French, Creole, and Caribbean culture. (Algiers is a neighborhood in New Orleans, the Western bank of the mighty Mississippi.) Calexico has always been interested in musical fusion but this record expands their already rich palette to include the tradition and imagery of the Caribbean. On the third track, Burns sings about a relationship that spans the length of the Gulf from New Orleans to Cuba’s Malecon – the famed and iconic sea wall that stretches along Havana’s vista to the northwest. Later on, we hear of a Bachata mama being called back to her home in Santiago (in the D.R. or Dominican Republic.) As one raised in the SouthEastern American stretch of the Gulf and the gateway between Latin/South America and the U.S., the album has a particular personal appeal and finds me again on the verge of a major transition. The record is textbook Calexico in its DNA but maneuvers away from the harder rock and upbeat tempos of their last two recordings (Garden Ruin and Carried to Dust) for a more pensive and muted feel, slowing down the tempo to mimic the slower backwards-looking nature fo the music and culture. (Please not that is not a judgment but rather a fascination for a world were the past is appreciated and celebrated daily, not merely another megabyte in one’s tech devices.) Although “Splitter” is the standout track from a radio perspective/new audience appeal, “Fortune Teller” grips me with its narrative of an individual on a darkened road in search of something; what exactly isn’t clear. Understanding? Companionship? Peace of Mind? Perhaps all of the foregoing. Despite the uncertainty of his journey’s end, the narrator is certain that s/he is “on the way to finer things“.
Get yourself ready for sonic voyage with some brilliant and passionate musicians on Calexico’s Algiers
If you like what you hear, go back and listen to these stellar previous offerings from Calexico