I Could Be in Love with Almost Everyone (in Calexico)
What’s wrong with everybody this week? I have been encountering angry, selfish people everywhere I go. My horoscope was not wrong when it said “You have cosmic permission to complain vociferously about the following: injustices perpetrated by small-minded people; shortsighted thinking that ignores the big picture; and greedy self-interest that disdains the future.” Yes, those people stained an otherwise unremarkable week.
So when I got up to get started on work this morning, I found myself largely unmotivated. What’s the point? I thought. Who would benefit from all the extra effort I planned to invest in this weekend’s duties? (By the way, I hope you’re not reading this, students, ’cause you should be working on your essays and this only happens to me rarely, and besides, I don’t have a deadline like you do. Next week. Don’t forget.) By way of procrastination, I played this Calexico video twelve times IN A ROW.
And then I got happy again. Here’s why: Calexico is precisely the opposite of the human behaviour I encountered all week. You can see it in their performance of this song if you’re not interested in looking anywhere else. They are energetic, happy, engaged with the song, each other, their audience. They are not marred by “greedy self-interest” – just look how many of those band members are singing throughout the song. Like, all of them! How many lead singers don’t mind all of the other members joining in and possibly taking away their glory?
That collaborative approach to what always comes across as joyous music making marks Calexico as distinct from their peers. Although Joey Burns and John Convertino started as a duo, they are noted for their backup/sessional work for many others, including Neko Case, Victoria Williams, and Maggie Bjorklund. That’s not all: Calexico always seems to be involved with joint projects like the In the Reins album with Iron and Wine, or the soundtrack for Circo, a documentary about a Mexican family circus (which is really good – I only saw half of it on a plane before the TVs failed, but I’m anxious to see the rest). And the band itself appears to be the picture of egalitarian collaboration; though led by Burns and Convertino, they have enthusiastically enveloped members Jacob Valenzuela and Paul Niehaus, and the group Mariachi Luz de Luna over time as part of their sonic fabric.
I started listening to the band in 2004, after Feast of Wire came out, and then I went backwards and got all their albums. I always had a crush on Burns because I love his voice; this was magnified when I actually saw what he looked like at The Docks in Toronto (on seriously the coldest night in the universe ever, at a place right near the water where no buses go…if you were there, you remember). To this day, I put on one of their albums when I crave the soothing effect that his voice has; it glides over their lush instrumental arrangements and has a pretty remarkable range and variety in timbre. I don’t think he gets enough praise for his singing ability.
But my interest in the band grew last year when they had a stronger media presence after the shootings in Arizona that injured Gabrielle Giffords. Calexico’s song, “Crystal Frontier”, was played for Giffords’s astronaut husband while he was on a space shuttle flight. When asked about that song and the shootings, Burns’s reponse was a combination of empathy, gratitude, and just plain sweetness. It’s rare to see a singer/bandleader with that level of genuineness in their answers.
My interest didn’t peak just because of that response, but because of the affectionate way in which they spoke of their adopted city, Tucson, and the dedication they have to its music scene. They record in local studios, aware that the city’s soundscape may gently bleed into their songs; they play regularly at local events like Festival en el Barrio Viejo; they film videos like “Two Silver Trees” with the region’s barren landscape framing them; and they create arrangements that sweep through your consciousness the way the wind rushes across the desert.
Their musical vocabulary is solid. All of the band members, and most clearly the two leaders, keep pushing themselves to improve as musicians and learn the traditions they hear around them. The opening of “Alone Again, Or” demonstrates exactly that, with Burns playing a Spanish-inflected guitar figure marked by grace notes and rapid arpeggiations. They frequently incorporate Spanish lyrics, and the presence of Mariachi Luz de Luna has had a significant effect on their sound as of late. Whether they’re using compound meters and complex rhythms, dark timbres, or jazz harmonies, the songwriters fold all of their musical education and influences into carefully crafted songs that stand out against those of their peers.
And then, despite the texturally interesting arrangements that Calexico creates for the full band performances, when the songs are stripped down to the basics, they have an equal (if not greater) appeal in their simplicity, as seen here in “The News About William”.