Calexico’s latest LP, Feast of Wire, plays like a long, solitary drive down a desert road at dusk: an apt mood for a band whose founding members inhabit Tucson, Ariz. and shares its name with a southern California border town.
Besides its mood of affective desolations, one of the most striking aspects of the album is the sheer depth and complexity of instrumental assembly, atypical of most indie label recordings. On Feast of Wire the experimental and versatile Joey Burns (bass) and John Convertino (drums) alone manage close to 20 different instruments and employ them all with surprising dexterity. Paul Niehaus also joins Burns and Convertino on pedal steel, accompanied by a stellar Jacob Valenzuaela on trumpet (with occasional trumpet work from Martin Wenk).
As if that wasn’t enough, the band invites a host of other musicians for guest spots, all of whom meld together, weaving masterfully through a range of styles. Feast of Wire offers distinctly Southwestern rhythms, brooding jazz trumpet solos, Tex-Mex twang, all while managing to preserve an indie-rock edge and an incredible sense of composition and style. And although the album offers rich instrumental layering at times, the band has an uncanny knack for allowing enough blank space to resonate with Joey Burns’ delicate, if sometimes indiscernible, vocal murmurings.
Feast of Wire is not, however, an album that is likely to captivate the listener the first time through. Although the bouncing opening track “Sunken Waltz,” with its lilting accordion and lively guitar strumming, may get your foot tapping, the seemingly upbeat melody is soon overtaken desolate lyrics. “Dropped his tools and keys and left/ and headed out as far as he could/ past the city and the gaping neighborhoods,” Burns sings.
Most of the album follows this arid melancholy; with titles including “Black Heart” and “Crumble,” merriment is certainly not a high priority. Consider lyrics from “Woven Birds,” for example: “Even the swallows have vanished/ no longer return every spring/ all the blossoms are buried beneath the waste.” Perhaps because of this unrelenting melancholy, the album seems to drag a bit the first time through. After a few listens, however, the sullen, fragile songs creep into the brain like a thin stream of smoke dissolving into the air of a room and settling into the fabric.
Among the album’s high points is the exquisite “Crumble,” which comes toward the end of the mostly instrumental second half of the album. This jazz-infused gem lays a backdrop of horns that invokes the Spanish sound of the Gil Evans/Miles Davis collaborative Sketches of Spain sessions. Layered over this are superb trumpet, trombone and electric guitar solos.
The skillful amalgamation of genres and instrumentation, indicative of many of the tracks, make Feast of Wire‘s songs sound less like experimental forays and more like mature manipulation of style, and perhaps the sound of a band finding a distinctive voice in an increasingly indistinct world of music.