Hot Rail


Band: Calexico
Album: Hot Rail
Best song: “Ballad of Cable Hogue” is fun. “Service and Repair” is nice and accessible. “Sonic Wind” is, like, one of the 20 best songs ever written.
Worst song: I like every song on this album.

I’m pretty tired of the word “soundscape.” I probably use it too often in these pieces, but nevertheless, it’s annoying. I was thinking about this in reading the generally decent review of Hot Rail on AllMusic. Maybe it’s just the music I enjoy. I like soundscape-y music, I guess.

During summers when I was a wee lad, our family would trek up to this flea market thing on the grounds of an old drive-in theater. The place was out by the private Palwaukee Airport (now called Chicago Executive Airport) and it was a haul up there. When I was very young, our whole family went. But, my sister aged (and became too cool for it) and eventually went to college in Boston. My mom stopped coming with, as well. It eventually was just my father and I. We’d walk up and down the dusty, desert-like rows while dirt kicked up in the hot Chicago wind.

In looking at the things that have shaped me, those trips to that flea market — and later, the one in the parking lot of Rosemont Horizon — loom very large. The tables were full of hobbying crap, stolen electronics, misdone counterfeit stuff and clean-out-the-garage material. Next to a home-screened Bart Simpson t-shirt (wherein Bart has blue skin or something) there would be car stereos a plenty next to a fruit stand selling papayas, rotting in the hot Chicago summer sun. There were guys with carts, selling one of two things: Crazy metallic balloons or ice cream.

There were the men selling old tools, all laid out on a throw rug in front of their conversion vans. There were plenty of women with the Church Lady haircut and t-shirts bearing cats, selling Beanie Babies in display cases. There were stringy-haired musicians selling old gear and sad widows selling their husband’s vast record collection, the albums boxed in milk crates.

(Those final two were my favorites, of course, because that’s how I bought a PA system, several guitars and about 90% of my vinyl collection.)

The only constant, though, was the Latin music sellers. I do not remember a time without them. Tucked somewhere in a middle row was a man in the shadow of a wall adorned with CD covers, standing next to a table full of CDs. He would always have 100+ watt speakers playing something like this:

I’m not Mexican. I don’t love Ranchero music. But anytime I hear “La Puerta Negra” or “Poco a Poco,” it reminds me of those trips to the flea market. And I smile.

Ranchero sounds are rampant through Hot Rail, but it’s not just the accordion and trumpet calls that make the album wonderful. Calexico is a border town band, from scenic Tucson. Joey Burns and John Calvertino honed their skills in Giant Sand and Friends of Dean Martinez, but Hot Rail sounds little like those bands. Certainly, the Western (not C&W) influences are there. Hot Rail is sparse, like photos of the desert.

The album falls somewhere in the cinematic category. Few of the songs are tight and the dynamism of the tracks are amazing. The record’s easy emotion resides not only in its lyrics — “Service and Repair” is melancholy tale of business, “Fade” is desperate and beautiful — but songs like “Sonic Wind” and “Untitled III” speed up and slow down like a heartbeat.

Calexico is a gorgeous band, creating painted pictures of the West through song. Soundscapes? Probably.

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