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Bordering Tensions

 

Calexico: Feast of Wire

Quarterstick, 2003

Rating: 4.2

 

 

Posted: March 2, 2003

By Laurence Station

Urgent restraint. Oxymoronic? Certainly. But that contradiction in terms is all too appropriate in describing the latest album from Tucson, AZ-based Calexico. All of the disparate threads that made the band's previous releases undeniably intriguing but wildly scattershot musical affairs (Ennio Morricone-meets-Miles Davis-meets-magic realist Latin American author Carlos Fuentes) come together on Feast of Wire, a potent mediation on capitalist expansion at the expense of the lower classes and the disenfranchised. But this is hardly a violent, call-to-arms revolution. Rather, the simmering, low-key tensions of the powerless are brought to life through their most powerful weapons: Time and patience. Multi-instrumentalists Joey Burns and John Convertino, the Calexico brain trust, successfully marry this thematic conceit with their trademark eclectic sonic restlessness for one of the year's strongest releases, and easily the band's masterwork to date.

Through an even mix of eight instrumental and vocal tracks, Feast of Wire explores the desperation, hope, cynicism and worldview of Mexican-American outsiders, illegal immigrants and itinerant laborers, lost souls without the will or the means to confront the shamelessly exploitative Free Trade/Maquiladora operating corporations head-on, opting instead to take a road less traveled. In "Sunken Waltz, " a carpenter walks off his job, builds a flying machine and takes flight from his unrewarding lot in life. The protagonist of the spare, acoustic "Not Even Stevie Nicks..." takes more extreme measures, driving his vehicle off a cliff. Here, however, momentary escape into the wild blue yonder gives way to reality (and gravity, of course) as his body is found amongst the vehicle's twisted wreckage. And the brothers in the stunning, brightly horn-laden "Across the Wire" attempt to escape from a life of crushing poverty for the land of plenty, only to spend most of their time dodging border guards. The power to dream, to imagine a better world where opportunities are fair and plentiful, and to rebel, no matter how modestly or seemingly inconsequentially, defines the reserved yet restless nature of the people Calexico celebrates in these songs.

But Burns and Convertino don't merely paint a picture of doom and gloom. There's hard optimism in "Woven Birds," in which forgotten ruins are rebuilt brick by brick, bringing about not only a cultural rebirth but a reawakening of the surrounding natural beauty as well. And "Black Heart," despite grim lines like "Things are stuck inside my skin," effectively utilizes strings and a stirring rhythm section to convey an epic sense of impending, apocalyptic change against appalling injustices.

The notion of urgent restraint makes its strongest impression on the instrumentals numbers. Racing strings, jagged guitar lines and stunted trumpet breaks infuse "Close Behind" with an restless apathy, the feeling that an important meeting or luncheon will be missed if one doesn't hurry. But the energy just isn't there to provoke action. The sense of restraint struggling to break free is best typified on the penultimate "Crumble," an expertly controlled frenzy of intricate beats, jazzy horns and mariachi-flavored rhythms. Devoid of any lyrical crutch, the track ably conveys the album's strongest theme: All things must pass, be it NAFTA-born, labor-exploiting manufacturers or the landfills steadily encroaching on the homes of those without a legislative voice.

Calexico's union of sound and language is the true triumph of Feast of Wire, an album that flows with the ease and confidence of a band that has clearly found its voice. And despite serving up some of its grimmest lyrics to date, Calexico certainly isn't wallowing in despair. Like the band's ever mutating, rapidly evolving sound, change -- be it political, social, or both -- is inevitable. Those individuals patient enough to wait for the system to fall in on itself, to eventually fail, can look forward to a day when the people on the lowest rungs of society rise up and build an altar of hope where once an impenetrable fortress of exclusion stood.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
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