Tell Them Apart


If you’re the sensitive type, you might sometimes send a little psychic sympathy to cousinly Doggs Snoop and Nate, since clumsy grandmothers confuse the two. But learn to prioritize, dog! Califone and Calexico, open-eared indie-rock outfits most people’ve never heard of, have it way worse: They’re socioculturally aligned, similarly roots-rooted, and in possession of loads of the same friends, which in this economy translates to a perpetual mix-up unabated by RealAudio sound snippets or any virulent Chicago/Tucson beef with which I’m familiar. Oh, and they’ve got nearly identical names.

At least Califone have a back story to hang onto. They used to be Red Red Meat, Sub Pop’s black-sheep blues-rock deconstructionists and one-time Smashing Pumpkins openers whose 1997 swan song, There’s a Star Above the Manger Tonight, sounds like Tricky tricking the Band into aping A Band of Bees with a wheeze. When no one understood the album, the Meat men burrowed into various side and solo projects, only to pretty much reassemble in ’98 under frontman Tim Rutili’s aegis to make an EP as Califone. Five years (and several releases) later, the bewitching Quicksand/Cradlesnakes demonstrates how productive burrowing can be: It’s a colossal headcase full of passive-aggressive songwriting, cigarette-butt vocalizing, and cloistered-ass studio craft that wilds out without Wilco’s financial wherewithal but with the conviction that trying equals doing.

And these guys’ll try anything: beery piano-bar rumination, defanged Zoso clang, the tidier instrumental noodling of fellow Chicagoans Tortoise and Isotope 217, whatever. That’s how Rutili (who apparently drafts new bandmates whenever he needs someone who can play the slit gong or the duct-tape coin piano) writes, too: “Silver harm sugar hands drunken hive/Amputated years are growing back a new shade,” he explains helpfully in “Horoscopic.Amputation.Honey,” a casually resplendent slow jam that really does sound likes a back-porch laptop hoedown. The spirited collaging tempts me to think of Califone as post-rock’s Latin Playboys. Yet there’s a weird interiority—maybe a weird Midwestern interiority—to Quicksand that I don’t hear in the Playboys’ fractured refraction of Los Angeles ramble-on. For all their sonic inhalation, these songs don’t invite you in at all; they just tower dolefully, like those two sentries securing the cover of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

In contrast, multi-instrumentalists Joey Burns and John Convertino, who formed Calexico in L.A. a decade ago after serving as peyote pontiff Howe Gelb’s rhythm section, emphasize the vitality of community. When the band played Joe’s Pub last November they brought along an honest-to-goodness mariachi group, and over coffee in his publicist’s office the next morning Burns, entirely unfazed that I’d never been to Tucson, hooked me up with a pamphlet from a local bookstore whose cultural programming allegedly kicks serious plateau ass.

I should specify that I’ve never been to Tucson physically, because Feast of Wire, like all of the group’s records, is a lovingly wired feast of local flavor that might as well be a postcard. Like Califone, Calexico pack it all in: hot border-town swing, sweet acoustic-guitar shuffle, sunbaked jazz twinkle, ham radio crackle, roiling thunderstorm strings, spaghetti western tremolo, tacky cactus cancan. But where Califone use that stylistic breadth as a sort of buffer—a way to form a world inside a world—Calexico just want to get down what they see around them; Feast is a remarkably gracious bit of cultural exchange. “Those who have stayed keep a flame in memory of the fallen,” Burns sings in “Woven Birds,” a finespun waltz about the death and rebirth of a village plaza, “and pass on the old rites despite the risk.” Yes, he is trying to break your heart.

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