Calexico is, as they might say on the diamond, strong up the middle. The well-seasoned Joey Burns pens internationally flavored songs championing the underdog and has developed into a top-notch starting guitarist; Volker Zander's wide range on acoustic bass shifts effortlessly from subtle to punishing, and drummer John Convertino, one of the best in the game, anchors the entire squad.
As if that lineup weren't enough, Jacob Valenzuela (trumpet, vibes), Martin Wenk (trumpet, vibes, guitar) and Paul Niehaus (pedal steel) are brilliant role players, adding accents every bit as vital -- this is a deep team, folks.
2003's Feast of Wire proved the band could add song styles like the Yankees add players, broadening their scope without losing their root sound, based inexorably as it is in the border region. This six-song EP may just be some middle relief between full lengths, but Calexico does more with these exhibitions than most.
Convict Pool is a strong mix of homegrown originals and free-agent covers -- as all good EPs should be. The leadoff track, Love's "Alone Again, Or...," is a no-brainer for this band, all thundering horns and Spanish guitars. The Minutemen's "Corona" is another natural, especially since the mariachi-flavored tune has been on the live roster for years. But the best pick-up may be Francois Breut's "Si Tu Disais," a melancholic march demonstrating yet again that Calexico can hammer you with power or finesse you into submission.
But it's the originals that best display their versatility. The title tune is a broad condemnation of the right wing, a Burns and Convertino duet with the MVPs making a majestic noise. "Sirena" is a steroid-fueled Norteno rave-up, and "Praskovia" begins as a quayside, Parisian-nights waltz before morphing into a Waits-like circus freakout, a lovely bit of musical misdirection.
Looking great on paper is one thing, though, experiencing it live quite another. But Calexico has for years fielded one of the best road acts going, and with each studio effort proves they can knock you out at home or away.
Track to burn: "Si Tu Disais"
Grade: A---John Schacht
Cee-Lo Green...is the Soul Machine
Cee-Lo Green, your time is now. Formerly of the Outkast-affiliated Dungeon Family, the nasal-toned Cee-Lo was once the breakout star of Georgia's best-crunk secret, Goodie Mob. When his band mates -- weary of critical acclaim but mediocre record sales -- decided instead to make a mainstream rap album (guns, girls, gluttony), Cee-Lo bolted. While the rest of the Mob chased the green, Cee-Lo vowed to record the Technicolor music he said ran through his head.
...Soul Machine, then, is something of Green's Speakerboxxx and his Love Below, equal parts Rotisserie-sports record making (I'll trade you Timbaland and Ludacris for Pharrell and a playa to be named later...) and truly inspired Al Green-style soul/funk. At 18 songs, it's about five too long (much like the "Kast records), but there's enough well-meaning originality here to please anyone who likes their hip-hop with a little optimism -- the love ahead, if you will.
Whatever it is, it works well, and neatly slots Cee-Lo just a notch or two below Virginia's Missy Elliott and Outkast on the list of Southern hip-hop artists changing the face of big-money hip-hop. Cee-Lo might not be turning a frown upside down, but it's refreshing compared to the "screwface" we usually receive.
Track to burn: "The Art of Noise"
Grade: B+--Timothy C. Davis
La Maison de Mon Reve
Touch & Go
A guitar figure, some plumbing work, the shriek of Godzilla, "If every angel's terrible, then why do you welcome them?" This begins CocoRosie's perplexing, alien La Maison de Mon Reve. Two sisters, Coco and Rosie, who pretend to be from France, with voices like angels or devils, depending, decked out in faux mustaches and teardrops...
Rosie plays guitar and pianos, her voice careening between guttural blues utterances and quasi-operatic flights. Coco fiddles with noises: children's toys, household objects, jewelry, whatever she can get in front of a mic. Her voice has the blues authenticity of Billie Holiday, the modern anguish of Beth Gibbons and the fancy of Bjork. Jointly, CocoRosie flow in and out of each other's harmonic distances, whispering together, floating in the spaces around minimal accompaniment.
Behind toy pianos and a cracked drum machine, "By Your Side" steals its title from Sade, but couldn't be further from her paean to man-woman relations: "I'd wear your black eyes, bake you apple pies, I don't ask why, and I trys not to crys." La Maison... is a wondrous cacophony, a sacrilegious wickedness thrown together beautifully: experimental singer-songwriter joys for the daring.
Track to burn: "Madonna"
Grade: A--Jesse Steichen