Sound Checks

Calexico, the Pinetop Seven and Shannon Wright
Friday, June 4; Side Door

When Calexico's Joey Burns sings, he doesn't really. He whispers in key, pushing just enough air through his vocal chords to make a sound, one that, although quiet, is filled with the trembling tension of someone letting you in on a secret about the person, just past the candle, on the other side of the table. He sings about the glowing center of town at night -- not about what goes on there, but what happens outside of its limits -- underneath the radar where the ghosts are, or beneath the shadows where the broken hearts are. When he sings of these stealth journeys away from the center, an air of danger accompanies it, which is why anything spoken must be whispered. That's when he sings at all. Half the time the danger is buried underneath unspoken instrumentals.

Calexico is Burns and drummer John Convertino; they make music in Arizona, and you can tell because the music has that Southwestern vibe to it, one that's as much Mex as Tex. An accordion will underline one of Burns' guitar lines or pedal-steel whines, and a plucky Tejano horn section will accent an American melody. Added to this surface are the rich sounds of deep vibraphone pungs and cello scrapes, though wide-open spaces segregate and isolate the individual sounds. These combinations sound natural on their most recent release, The Black Light (Quarterstick), a record that has both an instrumental and lyrical thread connecting its songs together.

You'd think these two would get sick of each other: They're also two-thirds of the great Arizona band Giant Sand, and have recorded as OP8, a project featuring Howe Gelb and Lisa Germano.

Also on the perfectly matched bill are the Pinetop Seven, a Chicago band whose roots are a bit more elusive than Calexico's, though the end result exudes a similarly relaxed, mournful tone. The Pinetop Seven, though, are much more lush, with a thicker palette of percussion. Whereas Calexico seems to record in the desert itself, the Pinetop Seven perform in a virtual rainforest. The Seven create a sound that takes on traditional musics, most notably country & western and bluegrass, picks them apart and shoves percussion, echoed moans and vocalist Darren Richard's gorgeous bellow into every empty space. Their best song, "Fear of Being Found," from their most recent album, Rigging the Toplights (Atavistic), explained bassist Ryan Hembrey in the RFT last year, "started out as a kind of a bluegrass tune, and our whole strategy was to try to take this bluegrass tune and make it not sound like one ... so it's sort of anti-swing or anti-bluegrass."

Opening will be singer/songwriter Shannon Wright, who performed here just last month. Her debut CD on Quarterstick Records, Flight Safety, is an emotional wreck, which always makes for some pretty compelling listening. (RR)

Los Straitjackets
Friday, June 4; Hi-Pointe

Let's face it: If you're gonna call your debut album The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets, you'd better be prepared to throw down. Los Straitjackets were (and still are), as it turns out, although since the group began to play live gigs in 1994, it's more often their look that gets all the attention, not their sound. The group -- guitarists Danny Amis (ex-Raybeats) and Eddie Angel, and drummer L.J. Lester (bassist E. Scott Esbeck quit the group last year) -- dress up their shows by wearing Mexican wrestling masks onstage. It's a kitschy gimmick, but the music of this Nashville-based quartet clearly is not. It's straight-up string-bending surf rock, without the trappings of punk, metal or biting irony, which are thought to be necessary these days to get retro-leaning material over to '90s audiences. As the group proved on their sophomore set, AViva! Los Straitjackets, the music is still quite capable of speaking for itself. The Straitjackets are currently touring in anticipation of releasing their third album, Instrumental Gallery, late next month. (DD)

Contributors: Daniel Durchholz, Randall Roberts

 
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