Calexico – Feast Of Wire (20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition): Album Review

Tex-Mex pioneers Calexico celebrate the 20th anniversary of their seminal Feast Of Wire album – with a few very special surprises…

Release Date:  26th May 2023

Label: City Slang Records

Formats: 2xCD, 3-disc vinyl LP, Download, Streaming

There’s a strong body of opinion amongst the hoard of Calexico’s followers that the band’s fourth album, 2003’s Feast Of Wire, might just be the best thing they ever made.  Now, I don’t want to start any arguments or feed any ongoing debates but I’m inclined to concede that those who expound such a view may very well have a point.  Feast Of Wire is, indeed an excellent album and, with this deluxe reissue, timed to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the original album’s release, City Slang Records have done the almost impossible – they’ve improved a product that was damn near perfect in the first place.

Let me explain, because the proof – in this case – is very definitely in the package.  What we have here is the original album, enhanced by the inclusion of Calexico’s delicious interpretation of Love’s Alone Again Or, a track that has only previously been available on the 2004 EP Convict Pool, plus – and this is truly the icing on an already scrumptious cake – a 10-track live album, recorded on 23 April 2003 at Stockholm’s China Teaturn during the European leg of Calexico’s Feast of Wire Tour.  And, if you think the songs on Feast of Wire really do represent Calexico at their very best, then wait until you hear the live versions…

Calexico have, of course, been around forever.  Or, perhaps more precisely, since 1995, when the band’s core duo – Joey Burns (vocals and guitars) and John Convertino (drums, percussion and piano) broke away from their band, Giant Sand.  Giant Sand were formed in Los Angeles around 1990 and relocated to Tucson, Arizona, in 1994.  Following their break from Giant Sand, Burns and Convertino operated first as The Friends of Dean Martin before settling on the name Calexico (named after a southern California border town).  The duo released their debut album, Spoke, in 1996, before subsequent albums, The Black Light (1998) and Hot Rail (2000) saw them gaining increasing levels of attention and acclaim in both the USA and in Europe.  Their distinctive musical style, a heady mix of Tex-Mex, jazz, French chanson and Latin Rhythms, drew positive comments from the media, including Mojo Magazine, who described Hot Rail as “…innovative and ambitious: one minute Smog in a Spaghetti Western, the next, Peckinpah meets Pink Floyd, or Palace playing Radiohead, or Lou Reed in a mariachi band.”  And that’s a description that applies equally well to Feast of Wire.

When Feast of Wire appeared in February 2003, it was greeted ecstatically by that same music media, with American magazine Pitchfork describing it as “…the album we always knew they had in them, but feared they would never make.”  Well – thankfully – they did make it, and I’m pleased to confirm that Feast of Wire sounds as relevant and fresh today as it did on the day that it was originally released.  Of course, it helps that the album’s central focus – migration across the US’s southern border from Mexico, a subject that had concerned the band since their very earliest days – is probably more massively relevant today than it was even back in 2003.

The signature Calexico mix of musical styles is clearly evident on Feast of Wire.  The Burns/Convertino duo is at the heart of everything, of course, but the guys were also inspired in their choice of supplementary musicians.  Lambchop’s Paul Niehaus adds lots of wonderful and, sometimes, quite exploratory pedal steel, touring band members Martin Wenk (trumpet, bowed vibes and accordion) and Volker Zander (upright bass) flesh out the sound and make the Tex-Mex and Latin rhythms come alive, whilst the Tucson Symphony Orchestra add the finishing touches that turn the duo’s borderline musings into widescreen reality.

And so, to the material itself…

The plight of those migrants, their passage round, through, over and under the border fences and their treatment at the hands of the US border forces get a thorough and harrowing analysis in songs like the polka-flavoured Sunken Waltz, the ghostly Black Heart, the desolate Woven Birds and, perhaps most incongruously, the mariachi tinged, accordion-drenched Across The Wire, a song in which the joyous tune belies the desperation of lyrics that refer to “lakes of sleeping children” and other scenes of migrants dodging the forces of law.

Equally dark, and just as deceptively joyful, Not Even Stevie Nicks contemplates the desperation of a man in the midst of committing suicide by jumping off a cliff, an act that even Fleetwood Mac’s “…priestess with her wrenches and secret powers” is powerless to stop as her voice emerges from the car radio.

But Feast Of Wire isn’t just a collection of thought-provoking songs of desperation.  There’s also a whole tranche of delightful instrumental tracks to savour.  Lovers of smouldering soul will delight in Quattro (World Drifts In) with its heavy percussion and some fantastic trumpet from Martin Wenk; Close Behind could pass for a Spaghetti Western theme as the combination of pedal steel and Tex-Mex accordion is blasted into the stratosphere by the full force of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, whilst Dub Latina does exactly what it says on the tin and the live favourite, Güero Canelo is simply irresistible.  Elsewhere, there’s a smattering of what the album’s press release describes as “impressionistic instrumentals,” short, often complex and always highly imaginative pieces to add further interest, and Pepita, The Book and the Canal and Whipping the Horses Eyes are all intriguing and enjoyable. 

And we’re not finished yet.  Electronic experimentation gets a look in with the perplexing Attack el Robot! Attack, Crumble is a delightful slice of lush jazz, with some marvelous trumpet and trombone parts and closing track, No Doze, is eerie and dramatic – another tune that could easily pass for a film score.  But, perhaps the jewel of this reissue is that Latinised interpretation of Love’s Alone Again Or.  The handclaps and trumpet add a whole new dimension to familiar song, and the result is something I can only describe as Hispanic Psychedelia.

Feast of Wire is, indeed, a classic album and this reissue is a timely reminder of that fact.

Dubbed “More Cowboys in Sweden” in a nod towards Lee Hazlewood’s 1970 soundtrack album, Cowboy In Sweden, the live disc that accompanies this package is truly excellent.  Recorded at Calexico’s 23rd April 2003 show at the China Teaturn, Stockholm, during the band’s European tour, it’s a revelation; the sound quality is first class, the band are on top form and the appreciation and excitement of the audience comes over loud and clear.  A huge chunk of Feast of Wire was performed at the show – ten of the album’s sixteen tracks were given an airing, and they’re all captured here in the sequence in which they were performed. 

Calexico open their set with the instrumental Pepita and right from the outset, and in the best tradition of live albums, the vibrancy and excitement is palpable.  Almost without exception the songs are bright and crisp, and – dare I say it – even better in the live context than they are on the studio album.  The highlights are almost too numerous to mention,. But Across the Wire, Dub Latina and Sunken Waltz are all scintillating, the version of Alone Again Or is a sizzler and, maybe best of all, set closer Güero Canelo is epic.

If Calexico is your thing, this reissue is unmissable.

And, to celebrate this momentous 20th anniversary, Calexico will be playing Feast of Wire in its entirety when they tour Europe this year, and the REALLY good news is that the tour itinerary includes a short run of UK shows. You’ll be able catch up with them on the following dates:

Wednesday 1st November: De La Warr Pavillion, Bexhill

Thursday 2nd November: Electric Ballroom, London

Friday 3rd November: The Fire Station, Sunderland

Saturday 4th November: New Century Hall, Manchester

Watch Calexico perform their version of Love’s Alone Again Or, live in Germany in 2006, here:

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