Inspiration for Independent Rock found in New Orleans: the album Algiers by the band Calexico

By Daniel Garrett

Calexico, Algier
Produced by Joey Burns, John Convertino, Craig Schumacher
Anti-, 2012
Givers, 5-track EP
Valcour Records, 2009

Louisiana, the state of Huey Long and Edwin Edwards and Dave Treen and Bobby Jindal, the state of Kate Chopin and Ernest Gaines, the state of Cajuns and Creoles, the state of oil and gas and sugar and salt industries, the state of beignets, boucherie, boudin, crawfish boils, poor boy sandwiches, popcorn balls, and pralines, has been the birth or adopted home of many musicians: among them, Amede Ardoin, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Better than Ezra, Clifton Chenier, Fats Domino, Galactic, Slim Harpo, Lenny Kravitz, Huddie Ledbetter, Wynton Marsalis, the Neville Brothers, Kermit Ruffins, Britney Spears, Irma Thomas, Cedric Watson, Lil Wayne, and Buckwheat Zydeco. Givers, a band from the Louisiana town of Lafayette, made something of an international splash not long ago, though its first recordings were with a small, important local company, Valcour Records; and more recently the band Calexico has recorded its album Algiers in the state, naming it after one of the neighborhoods in New Orleans.

The music of Givers is generous in its provision of delight. Influenced by local music and American pop, independent rock, and African music, the group’s palette is joyfully large. The band’s spirit may be that of its hometown, Lafayette, an enclave of homes, industry, and university, a culture of Cajuns and Creoles and people from around the world, a city of festivals, a small bohemia of art, film, and music, an area with crawfish and rice farms, and a habitat of alligators and chickens and eagles and horses and pelicans. The five-track extended play collection of Givers, out on Valcour, begins with the cheerily warm texture of its celebratory anthem of community and freedom “Up, up, up,” which has elements of African and western popular music. “Meantime” is punkish with jostling, fun sounds in its varied structure and terrific chanting. Both childlike and utterly serious, “Ceiling of Plankton,” about romantic infatuation, is spirited in its changes of rhythms and tones, while “Saw You First” suggests lovers meeting in a dream; and the remix of “Up, up, up”—with flute and thickened beat—seems even more dance ready. The joyous music of Givers is a happy standard for other groups, local and national, to live up to.

The Tucson band Calexico’s independent rock sound draws on American country music with a Latin influence, possibly something to be expected from Calexico, the band named for a town on the United States-Mexico border, and led by guitarist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino. In working in New Orleans the band members were finding a home in a town that has long been known for the interactions of different cultures, African, European, Native American—and a place some people think of as Caribbean. New Orleans is a city and a village, a place of family, work, religion, food, music, sex, and violence; a place of piety and pleasure—of private passions that become public. The members of Calexico were able to see the past and the future in New Orleans, the rich and the poor, the familiar and the strange—the complexities. Calexico recorded in the Living Room Studio, once a church, in Algiers, enjoying the acoustics and the food—and the group’s pleasure can be heard in the consistent intensity—sometimes quiet, sometimes loud—of its songs. With a dominant ringing rhythm, and the faster tempo of a secondary rhythm, Calexico’s song “Epic” has a concentrated but hushed lead voice, and the low harmonies of a chorus that make it sound like a hymn, with lyrics declaring “My love to all my friends” and murmurs regarding the opportunity “to hold you in my arms again.” The band’s “Splitter,” with a sympathetic voice making references to nature, work, and movement, has a chugging rock rhythm and horns, while “Sinner in the Sea,” about a wanderer seeking refuge, is moodily dramatic, the cross between a spiritual and a tall tale regarding how body and vision are damaged. What the songs share are place, proximity, and a regard for the human spirit: they are all on Calexico’s album Algiers, which presents twelve slices of a rootsy, textured music with more than one cultural source: one hears Latin rhythms and an American country rock influence for an intimate group sound. “Fortune Teller” is a sensitive first-person narrative involving stasis and leave-taking, with guitar and voice. “I’m on my way to finer things,” claims the narrator. There is controlled tension in “Para,” featuring a theme of relationship and separation, a man describes being followed, with what sounds like crisp bass notes below slow, delicate lines. It seems a scene of psychic play. A small private world is created, but the listener does wonder about the larger public world: what is the relationship of the two? Instrumental, with a Latin tinge, and a bit of a country twang, some of the rhythms of the song “Algiers” rock hard. It is interesting that the band did not try to put its perception of the neighborhood into explicit words; and the composition has a recurring taut, pulsating rhythm that suggests both sensuality and tension. “Maybe on Monday” is sung in a confidently masculine voice, clear, strong, but controlled—and a controlled intensity, mysterious and intimate, can be heard throughout the song collection. Next is “Puerto,” which seems history-haunted, a story of natives and conquest, and has counter-rhythms and a changing structure and horns, then the hushed, melancholy “Better and Better,” with its reference to different American states, geographic and juridical, traveled by restless individuals. The language and music are Spanish in the softly percussive “No Te Vayas,” a sound both bright and somber, the melding tones of a dense experience, followed by the tender, quietly spacious “Hush” and the atmospheric, rambling, really incantatory “The Vanishing Mind,” which makes country rock sound like chamber music, full of art and spirit.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.