Hot Rail
Quarterstick Records

There's a rumble brewing down on the Rio Grande and Calexico is back with their third album to paint the picture, amigo. With Hot Rail, the band sounds like Eastwood dozing, boots kicked up, brim kicked down, dreaming of demon Mariachi bands.

This is the land that film score giant Ennio Morricone built with his Spaghetti Western soundtracks, butted up against workaday lives cast like dirty dice in lonely adobe. Calexico campadres Joey Burns and John Convertino (expatriating once again from their home band, Tucson's Giant Sand) have made an impressive game of this, already registering off the scale with their 1997 debut Spoke and 1998's follow-up masterpiece The Black Light.

Hot Rail continues mining the same rich vein - El Dorado!

Wind-blown, but always on course, Calexico weaves rich vistas of twangy guitar and loose travelogue against a backdrop of vaguely foreboding Mariachi horns. In fact, Hot Rail could be a finer guide than Fodor's for the scrub brush and sage landscape of the southwest. Burns muses laconically, like the will of the open road: "Doesn't take much time for plans to go astray."

Calexico is dollars-to-pesos the finest thing going, an enthralling tequila sunrise not without shards of that incumbent hangover. It's the snake bite and the serum.-Mick Jeffries

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John Frusciante
To Record Only Water for Ten Days
Warner Bros.

The man who has reinvigorated the Red Hot Chili Peppers - twice, yet - puts out very different music when he's going it alone. The sound is an overdub factory, heavy on rhythmic fuzztones and with a faith in drum machines that hasn't been seen since the '80s. Frusciante's very much into the vibe of early Traffic, and sure enough the singing sounds like Steve Winwood, deeply devoted to shallow mystic questions: Let the pretend take over/And that season be the first/shadows we're in become us/So we set up interspersed. "The First Season" is a good stretch-out of this style, and the entire collection would be lessened if Frusciante didn't occasionally take the time to bring out the shadows behind the songs. The lyrics fill up with personal searching that go even beyond the grave, plus more earthly exchanges that always seem to come up short of delivering lasting delight. Eventually, the guitarist finds his place in the Zen trip, but the enjoyment for the listener is in hearing the journey. The shorter tracks give off hints of fussing but the results don't show much past self-absorption.

This record avoids the two biggest pitfalls of solo albums. The arrangements don't simply go after a watered-down version of the original group, and it's readily apparent that Frusciante wasn't holding back some ready-to-go Chili Pepper hits with these tunes - though it might be interesting to hear some of this material shared with Kiedis, Flea and Smith. -T.E. Lyons

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Big Fresh
Yes, Nice, Please, Thanks
Aquapop Records

Big Fresh's latest release, Yes, Nice, Please, Thanks, is a relentlessly melodic record filled with eclectic instrumental touches and hopelessly clever songwriting. In a woozy dreamscape of plush, moody compositions, Big Fresh emerges as proud purveyors of exotically down-home art pop. A band more interested in textures than traditional settings, they perform crisp, cerebral pop that explodes with energy and ideas.

Elliptical, often tongue-in-cheek lyrics and soaring vocals indicate strong influences by bands ranging from 10cc to XTC and NRBQ. Paying great attention to sonic detail, Big Fresh creates dizzying, dreamy melodies with a stampeding legion of guitars, keyboards, horns, and programmed sounds.

"Don't Call It a Comebacharach" is a Beulah-ish horn-driven pop song with an interesting rap interlude, while "2199" hits like an aural zeitgeist, complete with digital sounds, vocoder effects, and handclaps. There are beautiful swells and lush arrangements everywhere, especially in songs like "I Know You're There," "Lost and Found," and "Sleep." "No Guarantees" and "Introduce Ourselves" find the band drifting into dreamy air-style electro-psychedelia with liquid instrumentation and a hypnotic quietude. "Sexual, Kentucky" sounds like twisted theme show music while "Jesus Christ" plays like some sort of merry mysticism on top of sporadic country and western beats.

With a shameless commitment to pop, these starry-eyed sketches of strolling melodies and sunny voices create a sonically pungent synthesis of the belligerently overactive and the intensely tuneful on this oddly and perversely satisfying record.-Chris Webb