Classic Americana Albums: Calexico “Feast Of Wire”

City Slang, 2003

It’s hard to believe that it’s 20 years since Calexico released ‘Feast Of Wire‘, its themes remain as relevant and as prescient as ever: people crossing the border into the US from Mexico, the homeless and those living at the margins of American society. The group had released three LPs prior to ‘Feast Of Wire‘ and although these albums all had their merits, they also all had weak spots as if the band had failed, in some inexplicable way, to really reach their full potential. ‘Feast Of Wire‘ was a departure from Calexico’s other albums in that the previously relied upon mariachi sounds took more of a backseat. In addition, both Joey Burns and John Convertino, the core members of the band, both admit that they had a lot more time to work on the record, than had been the case in the past.

Recorded in Craig Schumacher’s Wave Lab Studio in downtown Tucson in Arizona, the dry desert heat seeps from every track, as John Convertino said in an interview in 2003, “it gets into your bones“. The album’s name was inspired by the Harry Crews novel ‘Feast Of Snakes’, which was initially considered as a title. In the end, it was Victor Gastelum, who produced the record’s artwork, who came up with ‘A Feast Of Wire‘. As Burns discussed at the time, it has many meanings which are reflected in the songs: borders keeping the haves from the have-nots, the rapid advancement of technology and the cables between the wooden telegraph poles adjacent to American roads used to keep information flowing.

The album opens with the accordion-driven 3/4 time of ‘Sunken Waltz‘, which sets the scene with stories of the homeless who “Washed their face in the rivers of empire, made their bed from a cardboard crate, down in the city of quartz”.  ‘Quattro (Worlds Drift In)‘ takes its name from a four-string Latin American instrument, akin to a ukulele, given to Burns, which when he started playing it, became the inspiration for the track. The song obliquely references the Tarahumara indigenous people, the majority of whom live in the Sierra Madre Occidental highlands in Mexico. They’re renowned for their long-distance running and ability to chase down their prey until it’s exhausted. Burns said he wanted the song to evoke “a constant feel of pace and running” which it certainly does, it also conveys the struggles, which to a certain degree everyone faces, as Burns sings, “Love the run but not the race”.

Several of the songs on the album have a cinematic quality to them. ‘Black Heart‘ is one of these, featuring the beautiful, sweeping strings of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. It’s a song that Convertino said he found “cathartic” to play. It’s a good example of what’s often been described as “desert noir“. The song’s packed full of metaphors with a man “Wrapped with wire, tapped to the heart” and “Apparitions worth their weight in gold”. The instrumental ‘Pepita‘ also seems to capture the desert landscape perfectly building from some electronic sounds and a simple guitar riff into something majestic.

Behind the colourful melodies, there are some disturbing tales. ‘Not Even Stevie Nicks‘ is a good example. The song evolved when Burns was strumming a rhythm on his guitar which reminded him of a Fleetwood Mac ‘Rumours‘ era groove. Burns grew up near the Californian coast and the wrecked cars he used to see in his youth at the base of the cliffs sparked the idea of driving off them “into the blue”. At face value lyrics are a dark story of a man committing suicide but they could also be seen in a more positive way of somebody starting a new life. It’s followed by ‘Close Behind‘ another instrumental featuring panoramic strings and some fantastic brass. It sounds like the soundtrack to the best ever spaghetti western.

The ‘Book And The Canal‘ provides a brief piano-based interlude before ‘Attack! El Robot! Attack!‘ delivers a quirky instrumental, which, if it isn’t already, should be used in a Mexican sci-fi film. In many ways ‘Across The Wire‘ is the album’s centrepiece both musically and lyrically. It opens with blazing horns, and transports the listener immediately on a journey with Alberto and his brother making their way across the border from Mexico into the US, “Dodging the shadows of the border patrol, out in the wastelands wandering for days”.

Güero Canalo‘, takes its name from a taco stand in the south of Tucson, a photo of which appears on the cover of the album. It’s a story of drugs and gangs, “Soma, valium, oxycontin, reds, whites, speed, vicodin”, it’s all in there. ‘Crumble‘ is a jazz-influenced tune which highlights the brilliance of Convertino’s drumming before the album closes with the wonderfully downbeat ‘No Doze‘.

Feast Of Wire‘ has recently been reissued. The latest version includes the band, at the top of their game in 2003, playing songs from the album live at the China Theatre in Stockholm. It highlights just how great this collection of songs is. This record is not just a classic americana album, it’s a classic per se.

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