Best of the West
Calexico embraces the cultural diversity of the Western region
By Paul Davis
Few bands have illustrated the cultural interplay of the West as vividly as Calexico. For the past decade, the eight-piece Arizona outfit has developed a sound that embraces both sides of the border, merging the largely white American world of indie rock with the influence of Mexican-American folk music. Calexico founders Joey Burns and John Convertino offer up ways for seemingly disparate cultures to unite through a complex interplay of musical forms.
While previous albums found the band experimenting with song structures as much as cultural interplay, their latest album, Garden Ruin, finds Calexico embracing far more traditional vocal-driven songs, even displaying an orchestral pop element that has been muted on previous albums.
"We're always trying new things," says Burns. "When you try and flesh out your influences with the sort of instruments we have--particularly particularly horns--there's so much potential. With an instrumental lineup like we have, there are worlds of possibility, which I think has always been our advantage."
Though the move might appear to be a conscious effort to change the band's sound, Burns insists that this change came about organically. "We have no formula," he states. "We like to have a laid-back environment in the studio to experiment in. There's a bunch of instrumentals we recorded over a six-month period, but it seems we're turning more towards song-based material. Still, all of this is pretty intuitive. We always want to keep pushing these boundaries."
Garden Ruin also marks a departure from Calexico's previous work on a lyrical level, in its explicit criticism of the Bush administration and the War in Iraq. While previous songs covered social and political topics through abstract imagery and impressionistic observation, the current album is more pointed and direct. "The political has always been part of what we do, especially being here out west and watching the earth be blacktopped and polluted," says Burns. "But now we're watching this tension building here and abroad, and we feel the importance of addressing it. There's a theme in music where tension builds in a song, and I think that really correlates with what's going on out here in the States."
Although far more explicit in its political sentiments, Garden Ruin still doesn't forego Calexico's signature lyrical impressionism. "I can't get behind preachy lyrics," notes Burns. "These songs speak more to a mind-set, observing people's mentalities and how their lives are led. What I want to do is connect certain themes together. There's so many ways to go about writing about these topics, but I think John and I respect a more abstract bent in lyric writing."
Of course, Calexico's merging of the music from a number of cultures is, in itself, an inherently political act of inclusiveness. Performing for predominately white indie rock audiences, the group is in many cases introducing them for the first time to styles such as Mexican folk music and Brazilian sambas. Burns acknowledges that Calexico has encountered some resistance in the past, but believes its widening audience has come to respect the band for its broad range.
"I have my theories about playing to certain audiences," says Burns, "but we've really found, by playing festivals here and abroad, how well the music translates to a wider audience, which gives me hope. With what's going on in the news right now, all the Mexican-American immigrants speaking up for their rights, people are seeing that this influence is everywhere, which is exactly how it should be."
Despite the difficult political climate of late, Burns still sees possibilities for rich cultural exchange. "Even though the lyrics on the new record are very pessimistic, there's a lot of hope in the music itself," Burns notes. "We want the music to display a real respect towards a wide range of cultures."
Calexico and the Black Heart Procession play Thursday, June 15, at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., SC; advance tickets are $15 at Streetlight Records; 831.421.9200.
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