Calexico's sound grows through pop reinvention
Published April 14, 2006
Ten years into its career, a band often has its sound staked out like
a garden plot: the turnips and tomatoes show up in the same place
every year. Fans take comfort in the familiarity, even as the band may
start to sound a little stale.
Calexico in many ways sounds like a new band on its 10th anniversary,
however. Its fifth album, "Garden Ruin" (Quarterstick), lives up to
its title: the carefully tilled sonic signatures it has cultivated
over the last decade have been uprooted, if not exactly ruined. Once
revered more for their evocative sound than their songs, these Arizona
denizens move beyond the eerie, noir-soundtrack atmospherics, mariachi
accents and exotic instrumental voicings of past releases into a more
direct, song-oriented approach on the new album.
"The band name, the desert location, the connections to some of the
regional music, the dynamics, the sound--yeah, we've been kind of
pigeonholed by some people," says singer and multi-instrumentalist
Joey Burns, who co-founded the band with drummer John Convertino in
Tucson. "So now, a lot of people who have been fans for a long time
are saying, `Hey, what happened?'"
Burns says that reaction doesn't bother him. After all, he and
Convertino were once the rhythm section in Giant Sand, a band never
easy to pin down. Now Calexico is rolling into a busy year, which will
include an intimate in-store introduction to the new album Monday at
Tower Records on Clark Street, and a slot Aug. 5 at Lollapalooza in
"Garden Ruin" retains some of the band's trademarks: the mix-and-match
of horns, keyboards, pedal steel and percussion knickknacks, the
musical sidetrips into world music (the Spanish ballad "Roka" and the
French noir narrative "Nom de Plume"). But the songwriting has
sharpened. Burns embraces the notion that this is as close to a pop
album as Calexico has ever made.
"In the time since the last album [`Feast of Wire' in 2003], we've
done a lot of touring and played a lot of festivals, and seeing all
these other bands has been a big inspiration in how we approached
writing songs," Burns says. "Being on tour with Wilco or Yo La Tengo,
or seeing Elvis Costello at a festival, had an effect. Playing Bonaroo
[in Tennessee] with people like Bob Dylan, Ani DiFranco, the Dead, and
Dave Matthews, was a big inspiration--this mixed-up lineup rooted in
the songwriting aesthetic."
In another departure, Calexico brought in an outside producer, J. D.
Foster (Green on Red, Marc Ribot). He proved a valuable foil for Burns
when his longtime sidekick Convertino was away from the sessions to
spend time with his newborn boy.
But Burns says these factors didn't ordain how the album would sound.
"There's a mood to session, so we really don't know where the songs
are going until we get into the studio," he says. "We could just as
easily have made an ambient jazz album." Instead, something as simple
as switching guitars--from a nylon-string model to a steel
acoustic--influenced the direction of the songs. "The different tone,
the feel, just puts you in a different place," he says.
The result is Calexico's most immediate album. The band, now a
quintet, has never written a more direct or beautiful song than
"Bisbee Blue," a folk-pop melody that evokes the Byrds. Nor has
Calexico ever recorded a song as ferocious--or as politically
explicit--as the howling guitar rocker "All Systems Red."
"When the dread is flowing down my veins," Burns sings, "I want to
tear it all down and build it up again."
"I'm not interested in slogans or flag-waving for either side on a
political issue," the singer says. "But it's important to speak out.
Not necessarily to provide answers or present facts, but to capture a
feeling, a consciousness. A song can bridge barriers. We tour a lot in
Europe, and there's a lot of dissatisfaction out there that isn't
necessarily being documented. We're constantly asked questions about
our government, the [Iraqi] war, [President] Bush."
The restlessness courses through the album. It documents a great band
planting the seeds of reinvention.
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Tower Records, 2301 N. Clark St.
Price: Free; 773-477-5994
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 7 p.m. Saturdays on WBEZ-FM 91.5.