John Convertino and Joey Burns of Calexico. The band performs Saturday night at the Granada in Lawrence.
You can take Calexico out of the Southwest but you can’t take the Southwest out of Calexico.
In December 2011, the duo of Joey Burns and John Convertino traveled to the Algiers section of New Orleans and for 12 days settled in to the cozy confines of the Living Room recording studio to record part of Calexico’s ninth studio album, “Algiers.”
“We’d wake up in the morning to the aroma of chicory coffee and play some old jazz on vinyl, some Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Thelonius Monk.
“The studio was across the river from the French Quarter in this very established neighborhood where the pace is slower and there’s not a lot of tourist attractions. So we weren’t distracted. We were surrounded by a completely different world, one that lives and breathes much differently than Tucson.”
All that ambience had only a slight effect on the music produced for “Algiers.” Instead of absorbing and resonating with the many musical sounds of New Orleans and Louisiana, “Algiers” bears the sounds and traits of all that have made Calexico unusual — traits born in the Southwest.
“Calexico is the big, romantic, Southwestern-flavored voice of america,” said Krysztof Nemeth, guitarist in the Kansas City band Latenight Callers and a longtime Calexico fan, “the ultimate roots-rock band, all friendly smiles onstage as they deliver their melting pot of sound that is both musical history and contemporary storytelling.”
“I’ve been a longtime fan of Calexico,” said Kyle Dalhquist, a multi-instrumentalist for the Kansas City bands Alacartoona and Mr. Marco’s V7.
“I appreciate the way that they authentically sound like where they’re from; there’s no artifice. All of their songs to varying degrees have the feel of the heat and the dust and the emptiness of the desert Southwest.”
Convertino and Burns started Calexico in the mid-1990s after spending time together in Giant Sand and the Tucson duo Friends of Dean Martinez. The two “forged an eclectic identity through their exploration of Southwestern culture,” wrote Robert Hicks in the “All Music Guide.” “Composer Ennio Morricoine’s spaghetti Westerns as well as Portuguese fado, Afro-Peruvian music, and ’50s and ’60s jazz, country, and surf music all factored into Calexico’s music.”
It’s inaugural recording, “Spoke,” released in 1997, bridged the transition from the Giant Sand/Dean Martinez years.
Critic John Chandler wrote at Amazon.com: “With vocals murmuring just below hearing level and guitars pushing and shoving between a lonesome, distant twang and a sleepy strum the music feels like a soundtrack from a hippie Western where the hero survives banishment in the desert by eating peyote buttons.”
That sound would evolve over the course of the following several albums, getting more layered and lavish and ornate, yet it would also stick to its founding traditions.
Of “Hot Rail,” its third album, a critic at Pitchfork wrote: “(Calexico) sounded better than ever.… I clung to every word and story — from the traditional border instrumental balladry of ‘El Picador’ and ‘Tres Avisos’ to the syncopated waltz ‘Sonic Wind,’ which swept me off my feet from verse to chorus.”
In 2003, Calexico released one of its most-acclaimed albums, “Feast of Wire,” which earned an 8.9/10 rating from Pitchfork: “ ‘Feast of Wire’ calls on a stunning, finely kept arsenal of genres, textures and images to transport you to the Southwest’s forgotten places and put you in the shoes of the people who stare across the border in both directions.”
In the nine-plus years since the release of “Wire,” Calexico would release five full-length albums, several EPs and two DVDs and contribute to several compilation and tribute albums — including to Kris Kristofferson, Alejandro Escovedo and singer Antonio Vega.
The two also collaborated with a host of other bands and musicians, including Neko Case, Nancy Sinatra, Los Super Seven, Marianne Dissard and Iron & Wine, and compose two soundtracks: to “The Guard” and the documentary “Circo.”
“We really enjoy spending time on soundtrack music,” Burns said. “That music tends to be more stripped-down and minimal, with fewer layers, less theatrical. It’s like getting back in touch with the origins of our music.”
So when they went into the Living Room in New Orleans to start work on “Algiers,” Burns said, the goal was to allow the ambience of the city to affect the songwriting but not overwhelm the band’s sound.
“We want to stay in touch with who we are and what we do and not be afraid of it or afraid to challenge it sometime,” Burns said. “There is this spirit we’re recognized for and along with that comes a signature sound: John’s drumming, especially the way he uses his brushes, the production and arrangements. It comes under this umbrella that has become the sound associated with Calexico, which is mostly Southwestern but with a Mediterranean spirit.
“There wasn’t a goal to abandon that, the sound we’ve come to be recognized for,” he said. “We wanted to keep one foot in the familiar, the other in new territory.”
The reviews for “Algiers” have been on the lukewarm side of positive, mostly because the music lacks any overt references to the music of New Orleans.
From Pitchfork: “There are no Mardi Gras trinkets on this album, no street bands or Zydeco flourishes, no Quintron or Trombone Shorty or Dr. John, no hoodoo charms or Saints gear.
“Burns and Convertino went east to make another Western record, one that even indulges Spanish-language lyrics and songs about sacrifices to Quetzalcoatl. ‘Algiers’ sounds great, with a noticeable sensitivity to instrumental interplay and an emphasis on Burns’ conspiratorial vocals, but the album is haunted by the missed opportunities to absorb the particulars of this neighborhood and reflect that in the music.”
That lack of Crescent City influences is conspicuous.
“I’ve liked Calexico since they were part of Giant Sand, and in pretty much every other incarnation. But honestly, this record didn’t particularly ‘wow’ me,” said Laura Lorson, a producer and commentator for Kansas Public Radio. “I was figuring that ‘Algiers’ would have kind of a Preservation Hall jazz feel to it, because I knew the backstory. It’s not a deal breaker for me that it doesn’t, though.”
Barry Lee, host of the weekly music show “Signal to Noise” on KKFI (90.1 FM), said the songs have the freel of Tucson and not New Orleans.
“They’re up to the band’s usual high standards,” Lee said. “It’s not a great album, but a very good one. Expect the ‘Algiers’ songs to take on new life in concert.”
Expect Calexico to take on a new life, too, when it performs at the Granada on Saturday. The band’s live shows have become famous for their dynamic, freewheeling spirit.
Calexico will be a seven-piece: Convertino and Burns, who will sing and play a variety of string instruments, will be joined by Paul Niehaus on pedal steel guitar, Ryan Alfred on upright and electric bass, Sergio Mendoza on keyboards, multi-instrumentalist Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet.
“I’m intrigued by the thoroughly modern model of having two core members with a revolving array of other musicians to round out the group,” Dahlquist said. “An especially unusual arrangement considering that those two started as a rhythm section — bass and drums.”
Burns noted how far Calexico has come as a live band since its inception as a two-man operation.
“We started out with just John and me and a handful of instruments collected from thrift stores and swap meets, which has led us to meeting musicians from all over the world,” he said. “As we played bigger stages, we brought in other musicians and grew comfortably and naturally into that stage.
“Our live shows are celebrations. People tend to enjoy the fact that there’s something special and spontaneous going on: lots of solos and improvisation, change of arrangements, interesting cover songs. It’s that ride you want to go on. It’s built to last. It serves a lot of people well, and it seems like people are still interesting in riding a long.”
Yes, the ride has been long, far-reaching and freewheeling, yet through it all, Calexico’s music has managed to stay very close to home.
Calexico performs Saturday at the Granada, 1020 Massachusetts St. in Lawrence. Bahamas open at 9 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door.
| Timothy Finn, The Star