If Joey Burns and John Convertino have injected into Calexico any element of their experience with Howe Gelb in underground luminaries Giant Sand, it was the tendency to craft records that can feel like compilations. Sure, early Calexico offerings like Spoke and The Black Light or tour-only releases like Aerocalexico 2001 hardly offered the wide spectrum of styles and feast of genres that one could find on the enveloping Chore of Enchantment, but they felt like they were coming from a similar place, each track less a part of a carefully constructed cohesive whole than a self-standing musical moment that somehow just clicked with its surroundings. Calexico’s full-length jigsaw puzzles, from Spoke right up through Feast of Wire, combined acoustic balladry, atmospheric desert-at-night post-rock, and rehearsal room asides with Latin rhythms, full-blown Tex-Mex refrains, and Morricone-style soundscapes. Even Hot Rail — arguably one of the band’s more consistent outings — and the Even My Sure Things Fall Through EP wrapped their arms around a willingness to keep each track sounding different from the last. For those following the arc of the Southwestern ensemble’s career, then, Convict Pool, a six-track EP released in the wake of last year’s Feast, is a bit of an oddity: one of Calexico’s most single-minded records to date.
Like Even My Sure Things Fall Through, Convict Pool is a quick one-off with a handful of studio treats, covers, and tracks that didn’t quite make their way on the group’s full-length discs. But what the record lacks in scope it makes up for in spirit, and the material here is, all in all, pretty damned impressive. First impressions are key. The disc opens with the catchy Latin-American overture “Alone Again Or,” where the band’s core acoustic guitars, drums, and upright bass are beautifully accented with dueling trumpets, keyboard, and guest vocals by Nicolai Dunger. What follows — the whispered guitar-and-brushed-drums balladry of the title track — is among the short EP’s finest moments, especially when Burns repeatedly lets himself go, simply wailing “Escape / Convict pool” as Convertino’s drums begin to roil and roll beneath and around him like busted thunder.
The balance of the record does anything but lose steam, serving up more Latin-tinged balladry (the flamenco shuffles, trumpets, and weepy pedal steel of “Si Tu Disais”), beer hall romps (a spirited, mostly-acoustic cover of the D. Boon-penned “Corona”), and border road songs (“Sirena,” a classic Calexico track in more than a few senses of the word). For good measure, the band even tosses in a boozy Tom Waits-influenced carnival waltz (“Praskovia”) and, in Even My Sure Things Fall Through tradition, a CD-ROM video clip (On this EP, it’s a 1999 Cartoon Network “shorty” set, sans dialogue or goofy dubs, to a slightly edited take on “Minas De Cobre”).
But while one could say the disc offers an eclectic variety of sonic treats given its relatively short running time, it’s also readily apparent how the entire thing fits together in a way lots of Calexico releases don’t. Despite the fact that the record’s six tracks were recorded by three different engineers in three different studios (and recorded and mixed in, all counted, three different states), the EP feels like it was captured during a single, full-band recording session, something aided by Burns’ plain-spoken, title-only introductions to “Convict Pool” and “Corona.” You’re almost waiting for someone to pause before the verses get going and ask the unheard engineer, “Is this thing rolling?”
Between-records EPs are often a mixed bag, either collections meant only for fans who cannot wait for the next full-length or overblown singles with useless add-ons. Calexico’s Convict Pool clearly fits in the former category, though you’ve got to give the band credit for putting together a six-song outing that’s good enough to serve as an introduction to its sound, right alongside those rightfully lauded full-length efforts.