Country music’s insurrection into pop hasn’t been a genre-wide coup so much as a few twangy giants hawking Revlon products or playing to half a million in Central Park. So the success of Shania, Toby and Garth doesn’t mean much for Calexico, the brilliantly understated Tucson six-piece that’s been smacked with the confusing “alt-country ” tag. Their latest, Feast of Wire (Quarterstick), is far too complex for such reckless hyphenation. A gorgeous mix of jaunty ballads and emotive instrumentals, Feast is the polar opposite of a shampoo commercial.
What it is is a soundtrack for the Arizona ether — arid, shimmering and sparse — created by guys who truly know the desert. Counting Crows often sing about the desert, but they sound more like the former desert that, through irrigation, became Los Angeles. The Crows don’t use silence, which is where Calexico does some of their best work, allowing the songs the space to open up and breathe. Rather than push them forward, they just nudge them along.
When the band does employ vocals, the tone is that of an intimate conversation. The creepy, strung out swagger of “Black Heart ” is laid over with heavy, growling lyrics — “Can’t find the poison/now I’ve got no cure/Things are stuck inside my skin ” — that suggest a sleepy-eyed character whispering the details of a bad trip into your ear. Themes stay pretty noir throughout, but often playfully, like on “Not Even Stevie Nicks, ” which laments the failure of the gravelly-voiced Fleetwood Mac vocalist to save a suicide victim. “Not even the priestess with the wrenches and secret powers/Could save him from danger for a little while. ”
But the rawest emoting comes through on Calexico’s instrumentals, often ominous, moody pieces that bubble below the surface like subterranean aquifers. “Pepita ” hums along with a weird, methodical urgency that’s reminiscent of some of Clinic’s quieter stuff. These instrumentals are usually on the shorter side, serving as interludes, and set Calexico apart from what would otherwise be fairly similar bands like Wilco.
Though some form of country music definitely serves as Feast‘s veneer — and that’s country without the essentially meaningless “alt ” prefix — it’s no more dominating than the other influences: folk, mariachi, even jazz. You get the sense that the band is playing with a collective stream-of-consciousness flow, yet every detail falls into place like zipper teeth as the songs eddy along. The end result is a stunning album filled with subtleties and nuance. It may never sell a line of cosmetics, but going au natural suits these guys just fine.