I've never quite understood the unanimous critical pants-wetting that invariably follows the release of a new Calexico record. Admittedly, I've haven't had extensive exposure to the band's material, but what I have heard has always struck me as a slightly limp indie version of an instrumental mariachi band -- and, well, I'm just not that fond of mariachi bands. Basically, the limited amount of Calexico stuff that I'd heard didn't exactly compel me to go out and explore their back catalog. However, I've always been much fonder of the work they've done in support of other musicians. Whether it be Giant Sand, Barbara Manning or Richard Buckner that they're assisting, Joey Burns and John Convertino seem to have an innate sense of what to bring to the table to bring the most out of an artist's songs.
So, then, it was with slight trepidation that I plunked Feast of Wire into the ol' player. Would I be forced to out myself as a dunderheaded critic who simply doesn't understand the genius of this band? Would I be drummed out of the critical corps? My brief worries were quickly put to rest when I realized that I really liked this disc. Now, as I mentioned before, I'm not terribly familiar with Calexico's other material, so I can't say for sure if they've really made a grand leap forward with this record of if the change has been more gradual, but let's just say that they're not an instrumental indie mariachi band anymore. For one thing, many of the tracks on Feast of Wire actually have vocals, and quite nice ones at that. Joey Burns's voice is a creaky, slightly tired-sounding thing, sort of like what might happen if you took a young Neil Young and dried him out in the Arizona desert for a few years.
It's not as if Calexico have completely abandoned their Southwestern conceits; "Across the Wire" features the same wheezy accordions, south-of-the-border horns and plucked nylon-string guitar that once turned me off. However, it seems that when it's accompanied by beautiful, slightly hallucinatory storytelling courtesy of Burns, as "Across the Wire" is, it comes together as a well-conceived whole. It helps that Calexico is all over the stylistic map here. Songs like "Quattro (World Drifts In)" are cinematic in a way that recalls a less bombastic outtake from Robbie Robertson's first solo record, whereas the wryly titled "Not Even Stevie Nicks..." would have fit quite comfortably alongside the high, lonesome tracks on Neil Young's Zuma. On the other end of the spectrum, the instrumental "Close Behind" sounds something like the soundtrack theme to a 1970s cop show set in Mexico City.
Overall, Feast of Wire's quality speaks for itself. Although not every track here is of the highest quality, all sixteen tracks are woven together expertly. Less significant instrumental tracks such as "Pepita" and "Whipping the Horse's Eyes" serve as lovely segues between the more substantial songs, in which Burns and Convertino truly exercise their skill at drawing listeners into their own little corner of the world. So, if you’re like me and never paid much attention to the two Tucson troubadours known as Calexico, it's time to come back and give them another chance. With Feast of Wire, they've made a truly outstanding record -- one that finally shows them in the same light as many of the estimable artists they've worked with over the years.