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A feast of post-Mariachi rock music
on March 3, 2003
In a way the reviewer from Phoenix sums it all up, because if you believe in a world strictly divided into simple categories by intransigent boundaries, Calexico's music obviously isn't for you. Gringos shan't play with mariachi bands just as the white hillbilly kid from Tupelo, Miss., had no business stealing that negro groove (or even worse, their gospel music), Robert Zimmerman turned into Judas when he picked up the electric guitar and Sandy Koufax should have been driven off the mound because Jews don't play baseball. Boundaries are easy ways out for those who want to avoid the harder task of judging a work on its merit rather than by the classifiers it reinforces or breaches, and Calexico have always made it their business to negate the borderline that separates the Sonoran desert into a Calexican and a Mexicali part (which might explain in part why they're so much more popular in boundary-infested Europe than in their home country).
For those who appreciate Calexico for who they are, this album is amazing. For most of the album Calexico's high wire (sic) act between the populist and the intricate works out perfectly, and unlike some of the earlier albums Feast of Wire actually flows. Sunken Waltz and Quattro find a perfect way to match the groove of the music and the sobriety of the message, and Black Heart even manages to top this feat. Ironically, for the most part the mariachi elements are muted and make place for a more pronounced European influence: the string arrangements on Black Heart and Close Behind recall Goldfrapp, Yann Tiersen or Francoiz Breut's stunning Vingt a Trente Mille Jours rather than Mariachi Luz de Luna. (Again, the influences here are mutual and far from a crowd-pleasing career move.)
The instrumentals, long the Achilles heel on Calexico albums, work out perfectly and for the most part do what they are supposed to: link the vocal tracks and lead from one idea to the next. If there is one thing to complain though, it is that the album is frontloaded with vocal tracks (pandering to listening boothes?), and the album peters out on four quasi-instrumental tracks (especially the somnambulant No Doze) rather than end with a bang. But even with this minor blemish Feast of Wire is Calexico at the height of their skills and a strong contender for my album of the year.