Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Calexico "The Black Light"; Atomic Love Medicine "Sampler"

By Michael Henningsen

APRIL 13, 1998: 

Alibi Rating Scale:

!!!!!= Lucky Charms
!!!!= Cap'n Crunch
!!!= Frosted Mini-Wheats
!!= Honeycomb
!= Sugar Smacks


Calexico

The Black Light (Quarterstick)

When one strips away the highway muck and oxidized paint from the vehicle known collectively as Giant Sand, it becomes almost instantly apparent that--despite Howe Gelb's faith in that thing called "unit"--the band, at their most basic, aren't a band at all, but several and various musicians who occasionally come together for magical (and less than in some cases) moments of cohesion. Giant Sand--kick ass as the records and live performances can be--is a glorified side project, the culmination of many side projects and sidetrackings. When it works, it's pure genius. When it doesn't, it's still far enough off the beaten path to sound almost vital, which would give one the impression that Giant Sand spin-offs are more likely to offer something of merit than not. In the instance of John Convertino's Calexico, the impression is dead on.

First off, it would be a grave mistake to expect Calexico's sophomore effort to sound anything like a Giant Sand record--the two bands, surprisingly enough, are altogether different beasts. Gelb's penchant for "found" sounds and left-field guitarring are nowhere to be found. Instead, Convertino and guitarist/vocalist Joey Burns--the two full-time members of Calexico--fill in the blanks with, well, blanks. But all the empty space--awkward as it would pose for most bands--allows Convertino and Burns ample breathing room with which to roam imagined prairies, in the process creating the soundtrack to an idealized Western of which even Ennio Morricone would be proud.

Spoke, Calexico's first record, is a musical moonlighter's instruction manual--quiet, reserved and safe. The Black Light, on the other hand, combines Convertino and Burns' multi-instrumental talents with thoughtful production and a decidedly weird array of orchestrations that include Latin-jazz stylings, Mariachi-inspired accordion and horns and good, old-fashioned pedal steel. The result is a silent movie without the visuals. But the deeper the record coaxes one into itself, the less reliant one becomes upon extraneous stimulation. Calexico's latest will forever be misunderstood in the listening minds of those who subscribe fully to the philosophy of the microwave generation--meals, e-mail and hit songs in less than three-and-a-half minutes. The Black Light demands to be heard in its entirety. To its discredit, none of the 17 tracks that make up The Black Light stand on their own as definitive; rather, they hang unobtrusively on liner notes and plastic packaging like so many black light posters on walls, sorrowfully illuminated but by the soft white and almost undetectable hum of halogen bulbs. Strung together, though, the songs that combine for this quizzical effort take on hazy, trick-of-the-eye dimensions that hardcore stoners--granted, to no avail--attempt to explain to whomever might listen.

If ever a record was made expressly to give purpose to the "repeat" function of your CD player, The Black Light is it. The music folds in on itself without effort or discernible intention, affording the listener a fully adjustable and self-managed brush with infinity. Run with it. !!!!!


Atomic Love Medicine

Atomic Love Medicine Sampler (Club MEDicine)

Aside from not being able to hear this record until the fourth track into it and the fact that most of the songs inexplicably fade in from nowhere, Atomic Love Medicine's seven-song debut contains some pretty, at times stunning, melodies, deliciously off-kilter guitar work and that mystical '80s new wave flavor only bands like Gene Loves Jezebel, the Church and Balaam and the Angel were capable of. The band may not appreciate that last charge, but damn, I sure do. Without that surreal, swirling quality--in the production, the songwriting and instrumental execution--the sampler wouldn't have much more to offer than someone's undone song ideas.

As things stand, there are some fine ideas at work here. For instance, the approximate half of "Catholic Moonfish" that actually appears here has a kick-ass hook, and "Holiday Isolation" makes for fine anthemic rave-up. The band's good grasp of dynamics and straightforward, ethereal arrangements make up partially for occasionally flat vocals and stuttered beats. Vocalist/guitarist Neal Ambrose-Smith has a surprisingly strong voice and, with more experience, could develop that tool alone into Atomic's razor-sharp secret weapon. The songwriting's already there. I just can't wait for the execution and production to catch up. !! 1/2

--Michael Henningsen


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