It doesn't stretch the imagination much to use some pedal steel and a few maracas to evoke the landscape of the Southwest -- rocky desert, border towns -- but the remarkable thing about Calexico has always been the way Joey Burns and John Convertino tread beyond the clichés of their band's country and mariachi instrumentation to grasp at the spirit in that arid soil. Employing a seemingly overambitious palette of influences -- post-rock, avant-jazz, folk melodics, Morricone strings and, yes of course, a healthy helping of mariachi bringing up the rear -- Burns and Convertino never strained to convey a mood you imagine must be embedded in their bones. The essence of every track on Calexico's last proper full-length, The Hot Rail, was a kind of vagabond loneliness, the churning longing of a runaway with only empty sky and memories to accompany his dash to an unspecified somewhere else.
Calexico's new CD, Feast of Wire, is composed of pretty much the same base elements that made The Hot Rail such a sad but thrilling ride. Yet the mood has shifted slightly, and, fittingly for a band fronted by indie rock's tightest bass and drum duo, the change is in the rhythms. Even the most ambient tracks on The Hot Rail had a desperado momentum, and the album's sequencing (a Hazlewoodesque ballad followed by a spaced-out instrumental followed by a mariachi interlude) also suggested going. But on Feast of Wire the mariachi and post-rock rhythms are more integrated into all the songwriting, making the album feel both looser and more seamless.
Thus, too, the change in atmosphere: There's a stillness to even the most driving tracks, which are crowded around the starting line. By the end of the album, the songs are all languorous and open-ended; it's as though The Hot Rail's running man stopped for a moment, took a good look around and realized that between here and there is better than either here or there.