Oddly, the band who seems most responsible for this trend seems to be backing away from it. Sure, Calexico's new disc Feast of Wire (Quarterstick) has a couple of pure Wild West homages, such as the rousing instrumental "Close Behind." Their songs are still peppered with the genre's ingredients: mentions of mission bells in the lyrics, lonely accordions, military trumpet blasts, and staggering waltzes. But the group is itching to branch out, pulling in odd sounds on a Latin Playboys-ish "Attack El Robot! Attack!" and even venturing into Portishead territory on "Black Heart." It sounds more scattered than previous releases, but the disc holds together - although the references may be centuries apart, a dark cloud always hangs overhead in these moody tunes.

The same could be said of the fourth album by The Black Heart Procession, a lush and moody disc called Amore Del Tropico (Touch & Go). The songs are full of tortured and possibly criminal amorous entanglements, in which a singer is likely to tell you that "love is a poison ring" or "love will steal all you've learned." Okay, this may sound more like film noir than an Italian Western, but the group's arrangements - backed by minor-key string sections or an out-of-tune piano, full of expansive instrumental passages - are obviously more in keeping with endless deserts and desperado-filled cantinas. Creepy and delicious, Amore really rewards obsessive listening.

"Expansive instrumental passages" are all you ever get with the Dirty Three, an Australian post-rock trio whose new She Has No Strings Apollo (Touch & Go) is coming out February 25 ... well, expansive passages and claustrophobic ones, sparse or dense ones, lyrical or minimalist ones. In other words, Dirty Three are an all-instrumental combo, fronted by classically trained violinist Warren Ellis, who may have learned to play in a conservatory but learned to play in the school of Sonic Youth, where it's frowned upon to only do what your instrument is intended to do. His fiddle screeches and feeds back, but never so much that it makes the music grating. I don't know what the title means, but I can tell you that the record is a soundtrack for some unmade movie I'd really like to see.

In that movie, there will be a rowdy cantina; and in that bar the house band will be called Zemog, el Gallo Bueno; and since the movie is made in the grand Leone tradition, where Italians play Mexican outlaws and European locales stand in for Monument Valley, it will matter very little that Zemog's music isn't quite indigenous to Mexico. It's more a hybrid of Afro-Cuban and freaky jazz forms, with extra influences borrowed from various American rock bands. (Though few of the lyrics are in English, the group hails from Boston.) About the name: "Zemog" is "Gomez" (the bandleader's last name) backwards; "el gallo bueno" has something to do with Gomez' childhood obsession with roosters. Whatever it is and wherever it comes from, Zemog's self-titled disc (on Aagoo Records) is the most exciting, inventive, and just plain weird Latin jazz to come along in a long time.

While a number of these groups are more interested in atmosphere than songs, The Sadies' take on Country & Western music is firmly rooted in the three- or four-minute pop song tradition. Their new Stories Often Told (Yep Roc) is much more Country than their last few discs have been (maybe as a result of their recent collaboration with the Waco Brothers' Jon Langford, the Bloodshot release The Mayors of the Moon). Before hearing it, I never would've guessed I'd put the Sadies in this company; but "Lay Down Your Arms" could be an old Calexico track, the vocal track on "Oak Ridges" sounds like a young Lee Hazlewood on a rough day, and the reverberating guitar on "A#1" practically begs for Lee Van Cleef to walk out, tip back his black hat, and shoot the hell out of some poor sucker. And now, off to the video store, crossing my fingers that they've got a DVD copy of Fistful of Dollars handy... •

More by John DeFore



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