Great Sonoran Hope

Last September, Roger Clyne organized a gathering at a southern Arizona fairgrounds to celebrate the Festival of the Chubascos -- chubascos being shorter and fiercer Mexican versions of the monsoons that Arizonans contend with every year.

The part of the chubascos phenomenon that Clyne really loves is that people in Mexico eagerly await the torrential storms, which provide their fields with needed irrigation, even while they fear the threat of devastation. It's a philosophical bent that Clyne can relate to, and one that informs Sonoran Hope and Madness, the latest and best-yet offering from the former leader of the Refreshments, and his band, the Peacemakers. "It's a strange thing," Clyne says of the chubascos. "Everybody prays for them to come, but once they're there, everybody prays for them to go away."

Similarly, he says of the new record: "We're dealing with the blessings inside the curse, and the curse inside the blessings. It's a very bipolar and dichotomized record, but in the ultimate distillation of the thing, it's about conscience and about the gifts of life. For the first time as a writer, I feel like a man standing up for something, without being on a soapbox or being too hypocritical or righteous."

The record is loaded with contradiction, a willingness to find beauty in life's imperfections and a discovery of joy within the bleakest moments. One of the album's signature tracks, "Ashes of San Miguel," tells of taking a trip to Mexico with a friend's ashes in an urn, of singing and drinking the night away with mariachis, all as a way of turning grief into a ritualistic celebration. For Clyne, the song had particular personal resonance.

"My best friend, Michael O'Hare, died from cystic fibrosis," he says. "He was a great teacher to me, because he taught about the urgency of life and the responsibility of choices. We were hanging around in our mid-twenties, and I wasn't thinking about that stuff. I was thinking about girls and beer, rock and roll and singing songs about it. But there's a certain deliberateness in the choices you make that I'm now learning about, as well as the choices you don't make."

In that sense, "Ashes of San Miguel," confronts the way Clyne gained spiritually from his loss. Conversely, the explicitly political "Buffalo" examines how the Southwest has suffered for its so-called progress, sacrificing its natural riches for growth.

Even the transparently sweet country lilt of "Sleep Like a Baby" is spiked with what Clyne self-mockingly refers to as his "neo-Luddite" worldview. Lamenting the punishingly fast pace of modern society, the song's protagonist finds refuge only in his sleep, finally experiencing an epiphany: "The songbird tells me as she sings / machines can not make sweeter dreams."

Clyne is clearly proud of Sonoran Hope, accurately viewing it as a creative watershed for him, but he worries about it, too. While the roots-rock soundscapes and droll storytelling of the past are still there (the self-deprecating "Bury My Heart at the Trailer Park" will reassure old Refreshments fans), the fun-loving, girl-chasing, cantina prankster of the past has morphed into someone unabashedly grown up. Now a husband and father of three, Clyne finds himself increasingly fascinated by the parameters of personal and social responsibility. In trying to define them for himself, he has crafted a different kind of song.

"It was a big step forward for me," Clyne says. "It was the first time I think I've made a record that has an overt conscience, instead of an implicit morality. In the past, I leaned on characters more. This is more first-person and I think it explains my values in a more definitive way."

Clyne's left turn as a songwriter was matched by the recording approach. Using bassist Danny White's Studer 16-track console, the Peacemakers stubbornly recorded and mixed everything in analog, and purposely limited their overdubbing options, so that every track would be meaningful and necessary.

"Danny was so insistent about keeping it analog, because he likes the depth and the warmth of the sound, he even disallowed us from using digital pedals or anything remotely digital. So it got a little obsessive-compulsive, but we all had our OCD problems."

In a way, the album feels like a debut for the Peacemakers as a genuine band, a cohesive unit of players that intuitively respond to each other. It's only after hearing Sonoran Hope that the piecemeal sessions for the band's first album Honky Tonk Union (they subsequently released a live record, Real to Reel) seem lacking in chemistry. The band's new collective force is especially evident on "Mile High and Risin'," a riff-driven raveup that rocks as hard as anything Clyne's ever written.

Clyne has decided to promote Sonoran Hope with a fervor he'd resisted since launching the Peacemakers. For the first time, he's employing the services of a PR company (Jet Set), and he's aggressively touring, even though it pains him to be away from his family.

As a signal of his feelings about the album, and a kind of statement-of-intent, Clyne bookended it with the sounds of firecrackers exploding. But even with such a briefly heard detail, it was important to him that the firecrackers not sound too impressive, that they not misrepresent what he had in mind.

"Firecrackers are usually some sort of declaration of independence," he says. "I deliberately recorded little firecrackers, Black Cats and bottle rockets, instead of the big stuff, because I wanted it to feel like the beginning of a personal revolution, and not something institutional."

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Gilbert Garcia