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Calexico focuses on a New Orleans vibe, this time around

| Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, 9:01 p.m.
Jairo Zavala

Borders — cultural, musical, metaphorical, literal — loom large in the musical mythology of Calexico. The Tucson, Ariz.-based band is named after a small town on the border of California and Mexico, and very few artists of any kind exude a stronger sense of place in their music.

The easiest and most cliched way to describe Calexico is “cinematic,” but it happens to be accurate. In their own way, the band evokes the bleak, deadly desertscapes of the Southwest as effectively as “Blood Simple,” Cormac McCarthy, and “No Country For Old Men.” They'll be Pittsburgh for a show at Mr. Small's on Sunday night.

They're a rock band, but draw on folk music from both sides of the border, blurring the boundaries between conjunto, cumbia and mariachi with indie post-rock, jazz rhythms and country murder ballads. They've even toured with a mariachi horn section.

So, it was a bit unexpected to see them decamp for New Orleans to record “Algiers,” their latest album, named for the neighborhood where they stayed.

“We were kind of looking for a place where we could focus, and be inspired by the surroundings and vibe of the place,” says singer/multi-instrumentalist Joey Burns. “New Orleans has always been a favorite town of ours. We found this incredible place — not in the French Quarter, across the river — Algiers. The studio was in an old Baptist church from the ‘30s, and the acoustics are amazing. John's (Convertino) drums never sounded better.”

It's odder still that the album sounds, for the most part, like it could have been recorded back in Tucson. There's no big obvious second-line horn sections, zydeco accordions or New Orleans bounce rappers intruding upon their arid, sweeping desert soundscapes.

“We went there to focus, but not necessarily to make a New Orleans-sounding record,” Burns says. “We wanted to make a Calexico record. We wanted to kind of go inward. We do so many collaborations, and love doing that, but we wanted to see what we could come up with 12 days, living, sleeping and eating at the Living Room Studio.”

In recent years, their own travels have taken them far beyond their Southwestern roots. This is reflected in their music, though not always in obvious ways.

“We've gone to South America, Cuba, and have felt the need to get closer to that world,” Burns says. “New Orleans was closer to that, the gateway to both North and South America.”

“Algiers” features Burns playing the Venezuelan cuatro, a kind of ukelele-like guitar. In addition to Burns' increasingly strong singing, there's also a vocalist in the band from Madrid, Spain. The horn players are from Tucson and Germany.

“When Europeans come over here and hear music from the Southwest, they are always impressed with the connections with their own music back home,” Burns says.

Of all the borders they've crossed, literally and metaphorically, the strangest might be the one separating the Earth from outer space. Former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was seriously injured in a January 2011 shooting, had the song “Slowness” played for her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, as the wake-up song aboard the space shuttle Endeavour on its last flight last year.

“We're really good friends with Gabby and Mark, even before the whole shooting incident,” Burns says. “In 2008, Gabby asked if we could pick a song as a wake-up call, and we chose ‘Slowness.' (Later), Mark asked us for a song he could play in honor of Gabby.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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