In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing.
Back in the early ’00s, I was a college radio program director. That meant that I put in endless hours not only organizing my drunk and disorderly peers, but also sitting in a dark room playing music to almost no listeners. (Seriously. My station, ACRN, was available only online and, briefly, through a system called carrier current, where it would show up on your radio dial but only if you put your stereo close enough to the electrical zaps churning through your dorm room wall.) It was a pretty thankless gig, but at the time, it felt pretty good to be able to play songs for people who actually cared—or at least cared enough to not change the station.
As with most radio stations, ACRN had different kinds of songs that had to be played during certain times. We played a modern radio hit once an hour, and newish songs in rotation, which meant a couple times a day. We also got to pick songs from a long list to fill in other slots, meaning if, for some godforsaken reason, you wanted to play Whale’s “Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe” every shift, you could.
Mermaid Avenue, Wilco and Billy Bragg’s tribute album to Woody Guthrie, came out in 1998, and its big single, “California Stars,” was always in that list of songs that could be played. I picked it one shift, fell in love with it, and played it frequently for years to come. It’s a perfect cover of a perfect song, and that’s why, when I saw a link to a version performed recently by both Wilco and Calexico—two of my favorite groups—that I instantly clicked on it. As it turned out, said performance happened in Nelsonville, Ohio, just 15 minutes from where I spent countless hours in that dark and smelly DJ booth. It was kismet.
With members of Calexico on horns, accordion, and backing vocals, the song takes on an even lusher tone. It even manages to somehow feel even more special than it did on that Mermaid Avenue record, and that’s a feat.
Calexico is a great band in its own right, but it’s occasionally an even better backing band, as evidenced by its work with Iron And Wine and in I’m Not There. At the show, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy referred to the two groups together as “Wilexico,” and while this one track is great, it would be a dream to hear the bands collaborate even more. It might be a pipe dream, but maybe if I say it loudly and listen to this cover enough, it will happen. It couldn’t hurt, right?