Calexico / Norfolk & Western

Calexico / Norfolk & Western

While traditional country music contains traces of the "western" sound, a lot of alt-country shares an affinity with the southwestern. Veteran Arizona indie-rock act Calexico is a quintessential case in point, with its cinematic songs anchored in waltzes and marches—time signatures that leave open spaces for the band to fill with hanging sound. After a decade of quasi-experimental, largely instrumental albums, Calexico's latest record, Garden Ruin, finds co-leaders Joey Burns and John Convertino focusing on multi-part rock songs like the album-opener "Cruel," on which rising horns give way to mournful pedal steel, pizzicato strings, and distant background vocals. "Cruel" sounds like a mini-symphony, as do the fragile, faintly psychedelic "Panic Open String" and the post-Beatles singer-songwriter ballad "Lucky Dime." The band even takes a break from making Americana sound exotic to venture overseas for "Nom De Plume," which puts banjo and accordion behind whispered French. Apparently even Europe has lonely rooms with sympathetic acoustics.

Portland folk collective Norfolk & Western follows the lead of bands like Calexico and Red House Painters, setting leisurely paces and using offbeat instrumentation to create a tranquil mood. "Porch Destruction," the first song on N&W's EP A Gilded Age (which actually lasts as long as some full-length albums, though it only has eight tracks), sets the tone with its slow drift of strings and coda of distorted guitars and chimes. Bandleader Adam Selzer is making music for the happily immobile—the kind who can identify with song titles like "A Voice Through The Wall" and "Watch The Days Slowly Fade." A Gilded Age is dedicated to reverberations and dimming colors, like a sunset in a windy desert.

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