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Calexico - Feast of Wire

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Artist: Calexico

Album: Feast of Wire

Label: Quarterstick

Review date: Feb. 20, 2003

A Vast Supper

"Sunken Waltz," the first track on Calexico's Feast of Wire, is a heartbreaker. At only two and a half minutes, it captures a world of desolation, squalor, and beauty only hinted at by the bleak artwork encasing the album. And while it should rightfully go down as one of history's finer album openers, it poses a problem: the rest of the album has to live up to its example. It's not completely unrealistic for Feast of Wire to succeed, of course, nor would it do for it to include sixteen “Sunken Waltzes”, but all the same it's a conundrum. A tough act to follow, that's all.

So then comes the melancholy "Quattro (World Drifts In)." From the beginning it's more grounded in the vein of the Calexico catalog: twangy guitar and sticks playing the rim of the snare drum, pedal steel and mariachi horns, Joey Burns intoning a familiar despair. Soon enough this one is pretty lovely too; intricate in the right way and spare at the right moments; overused instruments in just enough harmony to sound miles deep and truly sad. After a fuzzy 20-second interlude, far-off drums usher in the intriguingly sinister "Black Heart." Burns snarls verses like "Can't find the poison/ Now I got no cure/ Fangs are stuck inside my skin," and then croons the chorus while a formidably cinematic string part swoops down to bite again. "Black Heart" is windblown and lonely enough to make the finest of the country troubadours proud, yet its instrumental conclusion is majestic and intimidating. Three songs in and Feast of Wire isn't even tired.

Calexico, as you might guess, is geographically and sonically somewhere between California and Mexico. The town is deep in southern California; the band is from Tucson, Arizona. If ever there were a case for regional influence, this would beat the Strokes all to hell: you can almost hear the desert wail in "Black Heart," just as you can hear Cinco de Mayo in "Pepita." Feast of Wire is a decidedly more somber affair than 1998's The Black Light and bleaker still than 2000's Hot Rail; if those two were soundtracks to a small Southwestern community, Feast of Wire is the same town during a drought and a depression. These are atmospheres that recall cheap wine and railroad crossings, lyrics of sleeping on cardboard crates and vanishing associates, triumphant orchestral swells amidst harmonies that can make you uneasy deep, deep down.

Feast of Wire does begin to lose its intensity soon after the dark instrumental "Pepita," and from then on the moments of brilliance occur at lesser intervals (although they do occur, as on the chorus of "Woven Birds" and the meticulous buildup of "Dub Latina"). Instead of overwhelming, the later songs are just consistently good (with the exception of the delightfully funky "Attack El Robot! Attack!" which reminds us that the theremin is a criminally underused instrument); the palpable depression seems to have flagged and given way to a solid, if not passionate, mariachi-country vibe. Songs like the spirited "Güero Canelo" and the Miles Davis-indebted "Crumble" are interesting, but without the spark of sweeping melancholy that made Feast of Wire's earlier tracks so strong. The gloom returns briefly on the lilting "No Doze," as fitting an endpiece as "Sunken Waltz" was a difficult opener: it rises out of static and distortion for a few minutes, only to disappear back into it like so many disheartened cowboys into the sunset.

Ultimately, the album's tracks are as strong as the sum of their parts; the opening songs are composed of such rich combinations of instrumentation and atmosphere that their power is undeniable, and later songs like "Whipping the Horse's Eyes" are compelling for their use of cello or piano or pedal steel alone. But by the same token, the heavy-handed mariachi horns that appear now and again make tracks like "Across the Wire" seem almost silly. Feast of Wire is impressive if only for its sage use of instrumentation, and the degree to which it blends each separate element into an intriguing and often lovely album.

If "Sunken Waltz" is to be used as a marker, the rest of Feast of Wire measures up admirably for a long time, and only sinks to the level of interesting and pleasant. And like that small town in the Southwest where the freight trains don't stop anymore, Feast of Wire just goes to show that beautiful things can come out of the bleakest places.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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