Calexico – In the desert, no one can hear you dream
Joshua trees silently pass the window, the sun’s glare stealing their color. Distant mountains glisten in the tear-filled eyes of Claudette Colbert. Her smartly bobbed hair bounces lightly against the headrest as the train pulls to a stop. She walks alone in tailored linen through the Tucson station bustling with trade and homecoming. A waiting bellman takes her bags. Halting an oncoming convertible, he follows her across the broad, dust-hazed street to the Hotel Congress. The dignity of her stride, her careless style are the sum of all her energy. From within the hotel, the heel of a flamenco boot responds to the flash of a flirting red hem. The high ceilings and baked tile floor amplify the chatter of castanets.
Echoes of such lost eras haunt the Barrio Viejo. They’re captured in music by Calexico — Joey Burns and John Convertino — whose songs liberate subtlety, romance and mystery like bright shards of ancient cultures trapped in desert sand.
Burns and Convertino could fill a traveling CD case with recordings on which they’ve appeared: the last dozen Giant Sand records; Richard Buckner’s new Devotion + Doubt; a Friends of Dean Martinez album; Lonesome Billy, the solo debut of Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz; Slush, by the Lisa Germano-Giant Sand collaboration OP 8; and forthcoming releases by Barbara Manning and Michael Hurley. Burns and Convertino recently toured with Manning, and Burns has toured with Victoria Williams, with whom he sang on Rhino Records’ Gram Parsons tribute disc Conmemorativo. Both also played on Sweet Relief tribute records for Williams and Vic Chesnutt.
Responsive and complementary, intuitions honed as the rhythm section for Howe Gelb’s rock improvisation project Giant Sand, they are popular accompanists. At this year’s SXSW music festival, the pair (Burns on bass, Convertino on drums) performed on six showcases and in nine different sets, most memorably Buckner’s. For many, Buckner’s SXSW performance of songs from Devotion + Doubt represented the emotional apogee of a week filled with inspired poetry and expressive musicianship.
“Playing [with Buckner] was really easy,” says Convertino. “He’s a really solid guitar player, so we were able to get beyond just the sounds and get into where Richard is probably singing from. He really dwelt in that place.”
Abundant as their supporting credits are, their own music as Calexico is quite rare. A fall release on Touch & Go should remedy that, but now their own songs can be found only on Spoke, released in Germany by the Hausmusik label, and two 7-inch singles: “Spark” b/w “The Ride” (Wabana Records), and “Lost in Space” b/w “The Ride pt. 2” (All City Records).
The new Calexico record may or may not include eight songs Burns wrote and recorded with Convertino that were originally to be released by Friends of Dean Martinez, with which they’ve since had a bitter break. The songs presently are hostage to related negotiations. With slashes of mariachi horns highlighting instrumentation worthy of a basement Perez Prado or Martin Denny, this music ranges from voluptuously festive, as in the “Arive derci Roma” core of “Mariachi Cobre”, to gorgeously requiem-like, as in “Bag of Death”, intended to close the Friends’ song suite. Of the latter, Burns says, “It turned out to be an omen.”
Calexico music tends to be grittier, spontaneous and homemade, reflecting their skill at playing off each other for inspiration. “It would be nice…to expand the Calexico lineup and get a fuller sound,” says Burns, but he adds, “a two-piece band is really good for songs, I think. Unlike any other drummer, John plays not only rhythmically but also melodically. He listens to the melody and knows when to play and when to allow room for…space.”
In speaking of their music, Burns often invokes the imagery of sculpture — subtractive, minimalist — accented with magic realism. Ghosts are everywhere bearing treasured secrets; conflict and discord release their music. “The most important thing is leaving yourself open to letting things smash and break,” he says, “for those moments when you just kind of let things happen and see where the ghost wants to go.”
Burns acknowledges influences from Santo & Johnny’s signature guitar melodies, to Portuguese Fado singing, to Italianate accordion ballads, to TV western themes, to surf and Afro-Peruvian idioms. On a homemade Calexico tape, a dusty western is apt to follow a silky, bachelor-pad brush groove, and lead to a fiesta of violin or pop-like guitar riffing. Burns’ gentle voice cradles melodies in the midrange, easing up to the higher notes and occasionally lapsing almost to a whisper.
In contrast to the beauty of their musical components, Calexico’s lyrics, all written by Burns, often craft ageless themes from prosaic elements of middle-class 20th-century life: Upgrading a Powerbook, collecting frequent flyer miles, pouring concrete, putting on makeup. Burns also likes to make up words while performing the pair’s instrumental songs, but with “All the Pretty Horses”, he covers his mom, who sang it to him as a child. “I found a missing verse, which was ‘Way down yonder, down in the meadow, lies a poor little baby; bees and flies are pecking out its eyes; poor baby’s crying for its mother.'” Punched out as an instrumental on the Friends Of Dean CD, it has a stunningly different character when Burns sings it live with only Convertino accompanying him.
Convertino’s father played piano in nightclubs and loved to improvise, but he credits the record collection of his wife, Tasha Bundy, as a current inspiration. Bundy, a disc jockey at the Hotel Congress who’s popular with local and visiting musicians, is Calexico’s drummer for Tucson outings. She learned to play from Moe Tucker, who she met through the mother of a childhood friend.
The love of haggling for old instruments at Tucson’s fabled Chicago Store has yielded a virtual museum of equipment that Burns and Convertino say inspires them to try new things. Their active collection includes vibraphone, marimba, vintage Wurlitzer organ, accordion, glockenspiel, several ’60s drum kits, cello, violin, upright bass, mandolin, and a cheap Mexican guitar Richard Buckner left for Burns to use in teaching barrio children.
With Gelb, Convertino and Burns are neighbors in what might be called “The Giant Sand Compound” in Tucson’s Barrio Viejo. Their restored traditional adobe and gaslight-era frame homes surround a courtyard dominated by a towering saguaro skeleton of structural rods and found objects, the work of Convertino’s sculptor landlord. Burns says they sometimes buy homemade tamales from neighbors standing on the corner. Mariachis play there occasionally as well.
“We enjoy doing Calexico, but it’s just as important playing with other people, even if it’s just someone on the street…just singing,” Burns says. “There are many songs just floating out there, whether or not someone’s playing or singing them. It’s kind of nice sometimes to be a vehicle for someone’s expression. In Tucson, there are still some old ghosts floating around.”