Friday, 3 May 2013

Chop's CD Roulette - "The Black Light" by Calexico

Next up on Chop's CD Roulette is the second album by "desert noir" maestros Calexico. A concept album about the desert of Arizona and northern Mexico that displays touches of Americana, Indie and Tex-Mex influences.

@sonikkicks selected B25 which corresponded to The Black Light by Calexico (1998)

Calexico were effectively a duo at this point, by the next album I think they had expanded into a full band, but this album still features several contributions from other musicians. Joey Burns and John Convertino had been original members of Friends of Dean Martinez before joining up with Howe Gelb's Giant Sand. They became something of a rhythm section for hire (they are both brilliant on their default instruments) and formed Calexico as a means to unleash their multi-instrumental talents. I got into them in 1999 around the same time I was discovering Lambchop and beginning to get interested in Americana.

The album kicks off with Gypsy's Curse which has a wonderful twanging double bass line intro that sets the scene perfectly. Convertino's brushed drums and the swirl of accordion help build this instrumental, evoking the dusty streets of a Mexi-Cal border town. This feels like a largely instrumental album (though playing it back made me realise how many tracks do have vocals) and Fake Fur continues the theme. More double bass but with percussion provided by maracas and marimba to give it a more latin tempo. The guitar is reminiscent of a Ry Cooder soundtrack.

The Ride (Part 2) is the first track to feature vocals. Though Joey's voice is understated and restrained. Another short instrumental follows, a melancholy violin led tune called Where Water Flows. Then the title track picks things up again. The Black Light is one of the album highlights for me, that trademark drum and double bass combo setting the tone again and a lyric about following a girl to the darkest edges of town - "Follow her hair to the dark end of the street ... Out past the border patrol ..."

Sideshow jazzes things up a little with it's "Roll up, Roll up" guitar line and fairground accordion. Similarly Chach ups the Latin ante with more maracas, a swell of horns & trumpet parping and a pretty piano coda. Missing is the longest track on the album. A slow and melancholy tune with an almost whispered vocal.

Minas de Cobre is probably my favourite track. It has some fine pedal steel guitar and a great riff. There's the tap tap sound of something wooden providing percussion, and then the horns kick in and are amazing. This sounds a little like a Mexican Tindersticks.

I'm starting to run out of words to describe each track. That's probably a sign I should find a different way to write these in future. Over Your Shoulder is a gentle guitar led tune that echoes some of what has gone before. The album continues in that vein with five sub-three minute tracks which help evoke the sense of this being a soundtrack to an imaginary film. These are mostly instrumental though Trigger has a vocal that talks of an accidental shooting. Stray has a nice bass led intro and talks of a man moving away after the death of his lover. There's some corking Trumpet parping on this one too. Old Man Waltz wraps up the run with an accordion led waltz following on from a screechy violin introduction that conjures images of silent comedies.

Bloodflow is the final installment of the story, continuing the theme of the man struggling to cope with the death of his and trying to "avoid the tap on the shoulder, from that one in the long black cape". It's an oblique lyric but it's possible the man commits suicide unable to cope with the grief. Don't hold me to that though, I'm rubbish at listening to lyrics. Whatever the truth the album ends on an upbeat note with the instrumental Frontera. It's got a booming back beat and some lovely brass melody and possibly hints at the desert remaining beyond the life of people and things. I could be reading too much into this. It's a wonderful final tune though and ends the album on a bit of a high.


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