Way out on the fringes of this nebulous thing called alt-country are Calexico and Clem Snide, two opposite yet equal bands. Clem Snide is as East Coast as Philly cheese steak, and Calexico is as Southwestern as tacos de birria. Clem Snide reminds you of smoking manhole covers and cool nights in concrete canyons, while Calexico takes you to a sunburned vista of red rocks and army-green saguaros. About all they have in common are vague twangs, acute senses of melancholy, touches of jazz and the fact that they are two of the best bands in America.
The bands' lyricists are also on opposite ends of the spectrum. Calexico's Joey Burns obsesses on the borders between peoples, while Clem Snide's Eef Barzelay obsesses on the borders between people.
In conversation, Burns talks about the band's new album, Feast of Wire, and its tales of desperate illegal aliens and Tijuana lakes full of "sleeping" children. After all, this is the guy who recently paid homage to Carlos Fuentes in "Crystal Frontier."
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When Barzelay is reached, he instantly steers the conversation straight into the pop culture ditch, talking about the grand experiment that was Joe Millionaire and, yes, the momentous musical event that is American Idol. After all, this is the guy who recently paid homage to Corey Haim and Corey Feldman in "The Junky Jews."
"Oh, God, American Idol," Barzelay groans. "All those people are so terrible to me, I just don't get it Then Randy gets up and he's like, 'You just did it, man! You just blew the roof off this place!' And I'm like, 'Really? He did?' "
Barzelay was less perplexed by Evan Marriott's selection. "I knew he was gonna pick Zorah," he says. "He's a good guy, he's a really nice guy. The great mystery about it is did Sarah give him a blow job or not?"
Then he riffs on semifinalist Melissa M. "She was so transparent, just telling him what she thought he wanted to hear. She wanted to be a 'mercenary' and bathe people's children. I'm not letting you bathe my child, Melissa "
Barzelay says he won't be tuning in to Married By America, Fox's next high-stakes reality show, in which viewers pair off contestants and force them down the aisle. "I can't take it anymore," Barzelay admits. "I just can't take the pain in these other people's lives. It's so draining."
He means it, too. There's always genuine feeling behind Barzelay's mordant words -- sometimes righteous anger (the anti-Jewel diatribe "Moment in the Sun"), at other times genuine sympathy ("The Junky Jews"). Come to think of it, Melissa the Mercenary Who Meant to Say Missionary seems very much like one of the self- centered characters off The Ghost of Fashion, Clem Snide's 2001 classic, which explored narcissism and the dark side of love, and how the pursuit of the opposite sex can make us all look like idiots.
Barzelay says Soft Spot, the band's next album (tentatively scheduled for a June release), will take the opposite approach. Ghost "was a selfish record, and this one is more about selflessness and kindness and giving," he says. "All the songs are just sweet and straight-ahead. I just tried to write a love song as best I could."
Soft Spot is meant to complement Ghost of Fashion, and Barzelay confesses to a certain nervousness about how it will be received. "I know people kind of expect a tongue-in-cheek, sardonic flavor from Clem Snide, and they might not really get it on this record. I suppose that the people who are big fans of that might be a little disappointed, but I don't think so. I would hope that there is always a sincerity and sweetness on the Clem Snide albums."
Outside of recording Soft Spot, the band has been laying low. Barzelay and his wife had their first child, a son named Wylie, and thanks to NBC, Barzelay was able to take several months of paternity leave. Last year, NBC used "Moment in the Sun" as the theme song to the comedy Ed. Unfortunately for Barzelay, Ed's original theme (a Foo Fighters tune) recently came out of legal limbo, and now that's what you hear behind the opening credits.
"The winter of Ed's discontent ended and they got their Foo Fighters song back, so all those heartbroken Ed fans won't have to listen to my whiny voice ever again," Barzelay says ruefully. "It reminded me of how I had this girlfriend in high school, and she'd been going out with this guy since she was six. Senior year of high school she broke up with him for a couple of months and she got with me and then they got back together. Ed and the Foo Fighters were a match made in heaven. They just had to take a break from each other. I'm not knocking it, though. I haven't had to work for a year because of the performance royalties off of that. I should have named my kid Ed."
Now it's Calexico's turn to share in NBC's wealth. Last month the network licensed the band's three-year-old "El Picador" for use on the six-part series Kingpin, about the rise and fall of a Mexican drug lord. It's not much of a surprise -- rare is the Calexico fan that doesn't compare the group to Ennio Morricone and rave about the band's cinematic quality.
According to Joey Burns, Calexico's European fans sometimes get lost in the Western movie playing in their minds and miss the band's message. "I try to bring the border stories to the attention of the people I meet in Europe just to show them where we're coming from, because I think a lot of people over there just hear the soundtrack qualities of the instrumentals -- I don't think they dig down deeper."
But Burns has come to learn that there's now a Rio Grande across the world. "I start talking about stuff like how last summer near Tucson there was a record high number of deaths -- like 150 or something -- of immigrants trying to cross over in the Sonoran Desert, and then the cold, hard, black-turtleneck-wearing German journalist with the wire-rim glasses will say, 'Yes, we have that same problem over here with people trying to cross over from the east; they try to swim over the river and drown.' Or there's people from Africa trying to sneak across the Mediterranean into Spain. It's a universal problem."
Just as "Crystal Frontier" was inspired by the Carlos Fuentes book of the same name, Feast of Wire's "Across the Wire" also has a literary forerunner: By the Lake of the Sleeping Children, Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea's nonfiction portrait of Tijuana's dump-dwelling garbage pickers. "Across the Wire" is deceptively sprightly; the pedal steel, accordion, acoustic guitar, brushed snares, mariachi trumpet and Burns's lilting voice paint a jaunty picture. That is, until Burns sings these lines: "Spotted an eagle in the middle of a lake / resting on cactus and feasting on snakes / the waters recede as the dump closes in / revealing a whole lake of sleeping children / poisoning the stream that flows to the sea / and out on the waves that crash within reach /of those with so much / so little fear / you think it'd be crazy to be so far away and so near."
You kind of expect the worst from those lyrics. As it turns out, it's even worse than the worst
"Urrea used to go to this dump," Burns explains. "It used to be this hole in the ground, but now it's this towering mound of trash, mostly from San Diego across the border. This one section of the dump is a graveyard for children. In the rainy season -- and there's normally all these birds flying around, seagulls, crows, buzzards -- so he went in this graveyard in the rain and some of the children's corpses had floated to the top and these birds are feeding off of them. I had to put the book down at that point and just go, 'Holy shit.' "
Perhaps some of you just dropped this paper and said something similar. Actually, the rest of Feast of Wire will make you say the same thing, albeit in awe rather than horror. It's a wonderful album, a smidgen more accessible than their earlier full-lengthers and stellar from start to finish.
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The band's versatility continues to amaze. Their default setting -- mariachi-infused country-rock with touches of jazz -- is unusual enough, but what really astonishes is how well they can travel in each of those individual directions. There's a cumbia-like ode to their favorite taco shop in Tucson in "Güero Canelo," a spare waltz of aching beauty in "Sunken Waltz" and a tribute to Gil Evans in the straight-up jazz number "Crumble."
"Not Even Stevie Nicks " has the most memorable couplet of the album: "With a head like a vulture and a heart full of hornets / he drives off the cliff into the blue." The song was inspired by Burns's childhood. "I grew up in Southern California near these cliffs, and there'd be times where these cars would just drive off," Burns remembers. "And then the next day we'd go down to the tidal pools and play and wander around in the car wrecks and find all these strange leftover objects. It had a deep impression on me."
Odd, that. Of Ghost of Fashion's first track, "Let's Explode," a Clem Snide fan at amazon.com wrote that if he ever made an independent film, his protagonist would speed off the edge of a cliff screaming along with the song's chorus, "And I don't want to know me better!"
Maybe that's what makes both of these bands so great: They're driving alt-country off a cliff and into the blue.