Hot Rail

...we find their wide-screen grandeur and igneous spirit at its brightest...

We arrive at [a]Calexico[/a]’s rattletrap retreat seeking quiet deliverance from the tumult of the everyday. We want to kick off our troubles and bask in the duo’s warm Western glow; to revel in the spaghetti splendour of their mariachi sunsets and shimmering, tumbleweed dawns. We want peace, relaxation; a snake-oil rubdown, perhaps, and a cold bottle of beer. We don’t get them, though. What [a]Calexico[/a] – Arizona dreamers Joey Burns and John Convertino – do proffer, however, is a far more unsettling experience; a kind of Peckinpah-directed [I]Let’s Pretend[/I], where they hand us the canvas (huge, sprawling, mysterious) and let us do the cerebral brushwork.

Like all the finest sonic ranchers (Ry Cooder, Lambchop, etc), [a]Calexico[/a] know there are far greater emotional kicks to be scored from the hidden details – vague suggestions, knowing silences – than the broader, more obvious strokes. Correspondingly, their third album ‘Hot Rail’ is a vividly ocular, largely instrumental journey, taking in everything from blazing dustbowl showdowns (‘El Picador’) and fitful beatnik wig-outs (‘Sonic Wind’), to ponderous, near-ambient country rambles (‘Ritual Road Map’). So evocative are ‘Hot Rail’‘s cinematic vistas, in fact, that when a ‘proper’ song (y’know – words, voices, that sort of thing) occasionally pops its bonce above the sonic parapet, it seems almost an intrusion – a cruel reminder that we’re not sharp-shootin’ desert drifters after all and that reality is, in fact, waiting outside to cosh us senseless.

Not that these ‘proper’ tunes are in any way inferior, mind. Indeed, the lost-highway lurch of ‘Drenched’ (“Roads never lead where they’re supposed to go”), for one, sports enough woozy melodrama to rub ribs with Kurt Wagner. But [a]Calexico[/a] truly triumph when the clear-cut is jettisoned in favour of misted-up suggestion; when the expected is snubbed and the imagination roams free. It’s then – when tussling with Morricone on the marvellous ‘Tres Avisos’ or stalking Ry Cooder‘s dust-blown farmstead on the title track – that we find their wide-screen grandeur and igneous spirit at its brightest. It is, as someone once said, one helluva journey.