Coming off of the Ashes of 1980’s western rock group Giant Sand, the rhythm section of Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino formed Calexico in 1995 and developed a growth of musicians and sound that is rare in the realm of rock music. Known for using the sounds of the southwestern USA such as mariachi, Latin America, and the Mojave Desert, the group grew to incorporate even more mainly European sounds as French, Mediterranean, and Baltic influences could also be heard. This makes Calexico not only a world class band full of world class musicians, but also a band that will stand the test of time. Of course this would mean nothing without world-class melodies as well, but as Songwriter Joey Burns has shown in songs like “Black Heart”, “Bullets and Rocks”, “Mians De Cobre”, “Fade”, “Deep Down”, and “Si Tu Disais”, the songs that Calexico make are durable enough to stand tall among other rock bands of the 21st century.
Joey Burns – Vocals, Guitar, Bass
John Convertino – Drums
Current Roster of Touring Musicians:
Jario Zavala – guitar, bass
Ryan Alfred – Bass, synth
Sergio Mendoza – Mellotron, Piano, Accordion
Paul Niehaus – Steel Guitar
Jacob Valenzuela – Trumpet
Martin Wenk – Trumpet, Vibraphone
The Black Light
Ennio Morricone, Love, Los Lobos, The Dream Syndicate, Lambchop, The Minutemen
1996 – (4 / 5) – Spoke
1998 – (5 / 5) – The Black Light
2000 – (3.5 / 5) – Hot Rail
2003 – (4.5 / 5) – Feast of Wire
2006 – (5 / 5) – Garden Ruin
2008 – (4.5 / 5) – Carried to Dust
2012 – (3 / 5) – Algeris
2015 – (4.5 / 5) – Edge of the Sun
Spoke – (4 / 5)
The band’s first record is not uncommon of debuts: lo fidelity, soft spoken, establishing a unique though not-quite-there-yet sound. The thing that makes Spoke a great listen though is the musical quality. Littered though the albums 19 tracks are gems like “Spokes”, “Wash”, “Removed” and opener “Low Expectations”, songs that are short examples of why Calexico is a unique band. Their range of European influences is their main strength, covering Spanish flamenco on “Sanchez”, surf instrumentals a la Breeders on “Scout”, zydeco on “Mazurra”, French fairy tale style orchestration on “Point Vincent”, and Baltic, Arabic, and Mediterranean instrumentals scattered throughout. They have not settled on a style to pick on yet, but it is no surprise they hail from Arizona because all of the songs have this “desert” quality that represents the Southeastern US. The band shows its influences on its sleeves: both main members came from Howie Gelb’s similar themed Giant Sand, the songs that are very short have meaning like their influences The Minutemen and Wire’s did.
It is interesting to pinpoint other “desert” band mid-90’s counter parts throughout the record (“Slag” is a dead ringer for “Pepper” by the Butthole Surfers, while Fastball ripped off “Glimpse” for not one, but two of their only hit singles). In all, Spoke is truly an album experience, so to take one of these songs out of context would detract from the point. It is meant to be listened to all the way through, no more no less. Some people would say the band has not found their sound yet and that this is a confusing listen (it is a tad inconsistent throughout), but I choose to think the variety adds rather than detracts. It is the kind of album that is perfect for road trips or simply for sitting around the house and dreaming up ideas. Spoke is a great start for a band that could literally, take any shape or form here on and succeed.
Greatest Songs: Slag, Point Vincent, Removed, Spokes
The Black Light – (5 / 5)
Building off of the previous albums mariachi leanings, the band has chosen a less varied approach to great effect. They show a mastery of southwest USA themed rock music, similar to Los Lobos and the previous band of its two core members Giant Sand. Between the charming instrumentals like “Vinegaroon”, “Gypsy’s Curse”, “Fake Fur”, “Chach”, the genre bending “Minas De Cobre”, and mysterious desert opera compositions like “Bloodflow” (great album finale), “Stray”, “The Ride Pt. 2”, “Missing”, and the title track, there is a world waiting to be explored. Listening to The Black Light is being transported into another dimension, a world where scorpions surround you as you struggle to find water among the vast desert landscape. The focus that is brought into shape from the solid debut album Spoke is manifested on the band’s second album, showcasing a wide range of instruments and timbres rarely seen in rock music.
The Black Light is an album that only a certain kind of band could make, living in its own world and building off of what came before. The most effective songs should be pointed out: the vast yearning of “The Black Light” leads the listener along down a dusty trail of charred intestate roads, whispered more than sung; “Missing” is one of the most moving ballads ever created, tenderly sang by Joey Burns; “Minas de Cobre” is perhaps one of the three or four best rock instrumentals ever created, using trumpets to accentuate pain and yearning; “Over Your Shoulder” is not far behind that one, remaining strong and using an acoustic guitar to express a melody usually meant for vocals; “Stray” and “Trigger” are fairly straight forward rock songs that retain the band’s ambience and mystery. Overall, what makes the album a classic is the way it moves from ballad to western standoff to instrumental without any kind of break in flow or consistency. A must hear for any fan of classical, Latin, or rock styles of music.
Greatest Songs: Minas De Cobre, Missing, Bloodflow, Stray, The Black Light
Hot Rail – (3.5 / 5)
Ever expanding on the third record, Calexcio tries a somewhat failed attempt on Hot Rail. Some of this music works great, especially the first couple of songs including band’s longest track yet “Fade”. Those songs, along with the aptly named “Sonic Wind”, making the album worth hearing for the diehards. The problem lies with “Service and Repair”, “Untitled II & III”, and several instrumentals. From these songs, there is no sense of emotion present. Where older Calexico could display mastery in these areas, the band now seems to just be on auto pilot and tries to apply too much “space” rather than “content”. The critic Piero Scaruffi attributes this to the band’s ascent to a kind of classical music, but I fail to see this – to me it just comes across as boring, where the first couple of songs are actually dynamic (“Ballad of Cable Houge” and “Fade” especially). If Calexico are indeed trying to reach out to achieve a classical music style, they don’t succeed here (though they might on subsequent albums). Beyond “Midtown” and “Drenched”, good but hardly great songs, there is no reason to listen after “Sonic Wind” is done. A transitional album? Well not really, every album by Calexico tries something different, but this is their first average one.
Greatest Songs: Fade, Battle of Cable Houge, Sonic Wind, El Picador
Feast of Wire – (4.5 / 5)
Luckily, the band is back in full force for their 4th record, the wide ranging Feast of Wire. Centered around the illegal immigrant issue along the US-Mexico border thematically and journeying out to the range of styles Spoke encompassed, the album is an intriguing listen. They add one more element here than Spoke did though, pop music melodies. Uh Oh! It’s kind of that balance between pop and mariachi that prevails, whether its instrumentals (“Close Behind” and the “Sonic Wind” influenced “Pepita”) or the lyrical and orchestrated songs (the haunting “Quattro”, the menacing “Black Heart”, which is one of the greatest example of existential yearning in rock music, the sing-along dance and minor hit “Guero Canelo”). The instrumentals leave as much of an impression as the other songs, so if anything they have perfected their mariachi style as far as it will go.
That is the thing with this record: the band is still evolving, but they are also kind of stuck in place musically. The second half of the album suffers simply because these short songs do not always hold the listener’s attention. Calexico could have no doubt expanded some of these beautiful songs, “Not Even Stevie Nicks” comes to mind, and cut some of their lesser efforts off (“Crumble”, “Dub Latina”, “No Dose”) and had a classic record. The songs are here for it, there are just too many at 16. What the listener is left with though is still a great record by a constantly evolving band, that seems to be embarrassing their pop side. “Quattro”, “Black Heart”, and “Woven Birds” are some of the best songs the band has ever done, and the record stands as a minor masterwork of sorts.
Greatest Songs: Black Heart, Quattro, Woven Birds, Guero Canelo
Garden Ruin – (5 / 5)
First off, let me say that I am glad Calexico changed on their 5th album. They have really mastered that “mariachi rock” style and they needed to break free into new territory. Why this album divides fans is because the new style is melodic pop, a direction anyone who was listening saw coming a mile away. Who cares though? The band has the right to pick whatever style they want to, that is the joy of rock music. It came as a huge surprise to us all, but once you get used to the band newer and sonically LOUDER direction, you might agree with me that “Deep Down”, “Letter to Bowie Knife”, and “All Systems Red” are the best songs the band has done EVER! “Deep Down” is commentary on the Iraq War but also an elegant psychedelic journey that goes beyond the desert rock and into space territory; “All Systems Red” ends the record on a rather shoegazing kind of note, also building to a Dirty Three kind of climax; “Letter to Bowie Knife” is the pure best rock song the band has ever done, but it still has touches only Calexico could bring. I dare anyone not to be touched by all three songs.
The rest of the album has quite the variety about it: pure pop on “Bisbee Blue”, “Cruel”, and “Lucky Dime”; Calexico of old on “Yours and Mine”, “Roka” (with that Spanish touch still intact and maybe the band’s greatest attempt at English/Spanish fusion), and the pleasant “Smash”. Only “Non De Plume” bores and promotes skipping. The bottom line is they learned from the only mistake of Feast of Wire: make the songs longer and have less songs. At only 11 songs, this is a conscious effort to change from a band that was always good at whatever they tried. Most everything works exceptionally well, and this record stands right next to The Black Light as Calexico at their best. The band could truly go anywhere from here.
Greatest Songs: Deep Down, Letter to Bowie Knife, All Systems Red, Roka
Carried to Dust – (4.5 / 5)
While shunning the loud, pop music sheen of Garden Ruin, Carried to Dust still stands strong as yet another Calexico masterwork. The timbres of the music are more refined, the atmospheres are more consistent than ever, and the sound is not simply southwestern but more European. What works best are the polished, shimmering background layers that accentuate the melodic talent within Joey Burns’s songs. “Two Silver Trees” and “House of Valparaiso” comes to mind as the most breathtaking examples, while “New About William” has an epic quality that would have been better if the song was about five minutes long. “Man Made Lake”, “Fractured Air”, and “Contention City” take a couple of listens to sink in but are great tunes, while “Slowness” is a duet with a female voice that shows the band going in a more country music direction.
In some ways this album harks back to Feast of Wire and Black Light, but unfortunately nothing about that is good. While Calexico do expand their sound with his album, and on the instrumentation they have the largest crew ever assemble for one of their record, their moods are durable enough to sustain longer songs (like “Fade” from Hot Rail) and there are just too many throw away tracks on the album to consider it a true masterpiece like Garden Ruin was (“Hole In Your Head”, “El Gatillo”, “Inspiracion” are examples of this). But it should be said that compared to most bands of their time, Calexico still make strong albums, and Carried to Dust may be a flawed masterpiece but it is still full of beautiful music that defies categorization.
Greatest Songs: Two Silver Trees, House of Valparaiso, Slowness, The News About William
Algiers – (3 / 5)
Continuing their European and worldly sound by recording the new album in New Orleans with a whole plethora of new cohorts, the newest Calexico album does have some beautiful moments but ultimately fails to impress. The energy sustained on open tracks such as “Epic” and “Splinter” is not sustained throughout the whole album. Not for the lack of trying though: “Fortune Teller”, as groovy and chilled out as it is, it pure Shins territory and mid-tempo indie rock is something this band tends to rise above; “Puerto” tries some mid-song shift in styles a la “Minas De Cobra” but does not truly work; “No Te Vayas” is that usual Spanish language song that has become common place to the point of complete boredom. On the second half of the record, “Hush” and Maybe on Monday” do stand out somewhat amongst the crowd, but compared to the best songs off of Carried to Dust, Feast of Wire, and The Black Light they do not hold up. Truth is after the first four tracks, there is not a lot that doesn’t tend to blur together even after multiple listens. Algiers is pleasant, generic rock music and while not offensive, is hardly worth seeking out except by the die hard Calexico fans.
Greatest Songs: Epic, Splitter, Fortune Teller
Edge of the Sun – (4.5 / 5)
The Calexico brand seems to never die, as it stands tall twenty years after it’s first inception back in 1996. Their sound goes through constant revision, but remains a mix of old and new sounds of the Southwest USA. Burns has come very far as a singer, it must be said, and songs such as “Woodshed Waltz” and majestic, synth-led opener “Falling from the Sky” demonstrate this more than almost anything else. “Bullets and Rocks” is the classic, with its whispered ambience and almost chant like chorus that stays in your head for days. A duet with Neko Case happens on “Tapping the Line”, and as with any female counterpart the duet works exceptionally well. The Calexico of old resurfaces on “Cumbia De Donde”, which ranks up with “Roka” and “Guero Canelo” as the groups best Spanish influenced numbers. Influences show up more pronounced than usual on songs such as “Beneath the city of Dreams” with Camper Van Beethoven’s faux world music being a positive influence, “World Undone” showing off Morphine style depression while using members of an actual band from Greece, and “Follow the River” echoes R.E.M.’s similarly titled closer off of Automatic for the People. Like all great album closers, it would also serve as a great album opener.
There are not many detrimental things to say about the album, perhaps only that it can be slightly repetitive. “Coyoacian” comes off as a slight version of “Cumbia de Donde”, “When the Angels Played” is a lesser version of “Tapping the Line”, and so on. There really is not a song I would skip on the whole thing, as it might be the band’s most consistent album since The Black Light. It does not reach the highest peaks of Garden Ruin or Carried to Dust, but the band demonstrates a solid style and technique throughout and it is endlessly listenable. A high 4 ½ stars, almost a five, if it had a couple of other songs that rung out as classics like “Bullets and Rocks” and “Falling From the Sky”. The band’s willingness to reach into the depths of their soul and find what is pure and true knows almost no limit.
Greatest Songs: Bullets and Rocks, Falling From the Sky, Moon Never Rises, Woodshed Waltz
Side Note: On Spotify there are bonus tracks as well, 6 of them, and I would love to know more about where these songs came from. “Calavera” especially has a very cool vibe that would have fit on this album.
Compilations (Ep’s, Live albums, B Sides, etc.)
Even My Sure Things Fall Through – (3 / 5)
Coming in off the heels of The Hot Rail, Calexico’s most experimental album to date, it is no wonder that there were some left over tracks or that this EP is somewhat of a mixed bag. On the solid front, some of the band’s best songs to date lie on here, including “Crystal Frontier”, perhaps the defining song of the group and a must hear for a Calexico fan. The marching tempo of the drums pleasantly complement the mariachi trumpets and the whispered melody of Joey Burns as he talks about a poor family trying to cross the border from Mexico to the USA. Their message is local but at the same time universal, making the problems of one nation the problems of the human race as a whole. The acoustic version of the album is also reprised later, and is no less powerful. “Crooked Road and Briar” has an odd intro, but turns into a great song, while “Untitled III” implements dub and techno sounds and remains enchanting music. What doesn’t work are an unnecessary reprise of “Sonic Wind” from The Hot Rail, as well as b-sides “Chanel No. 5” and the awful, tired sounding instrumental “Banderilla”. Closer “Hard Hat” is a mystery as well, like how a band who made a beautiful seven-minute masterwork like “Fade” could produce a song of similar length that bores to tears; literally almost nothing happens over the length of the whole song! This leaves Even My Sure Things Fall Through as somewhat of a mixed bag for sure, though the songs that are worth hearing are pretty amazing and we wish there were more of them.
Convict Pool – (4.5 / 5)
The Convict Pool EP is a short little burst of creativity from the band, and it is definitely worth a listen. The covers of Love’s “Alone Again Or” and The Minutemen’s “Corona” are permanent live staples and a glimpse into who Calexico views as its influences. Speaking of the band playing live (which they are one of the best live acts in the world), the best song on Convict Pool, a cover of Francoiz Breut’s “Si Tu Disais”, is much better on the live Calexico DVD World Drifts In with French chanteuse Breut singing most of the melodies in her beautiful register. “Sirena” serves as a grand finale to this album, with it’s chorus of “Into the arms of/into the heart of”, making you with it was on a proper album around this time like Feast of Wire. The remaining two tracks, the title track and “Praskovia” leave less of an impression and do not meet the otherwise high quality found here. In all, some great songs here, and if you are interested in all things Calexico you will love these songs as well. If these are the kinds of songs this band casually tosses off unto an EP, half of them covers or not, this is one amazing band!
Greatest Songs: Si Tu Disais, Sirena, Alone Again Or