Ever since the early days of majestic western films, any music that evokes sun-cracked desert basins or lusty border towns has been tagged "cinematic." Calexico is among the latest bands to conjure up bleached-out Technicolor visions of dust storms and weary travelers. They don't have actual movies to accompany their soundtracks, but that's beside the point.
Listening to Calexico's third disc, "Hot Rail," is a more engaging adventure than sticking another tape in your VCR. The Arizona-based duo of John Convertino and Joey Burns offers so many musical touchstones -- pedal-steel guitar here, mariachi horns there -- that you can fill in wide-screen images yourself. "Hot Rail" revolves around a central theme, cementing and updating the mythical status of the American Southwest as a place where one goes to escape the past, build a new life or just disappear. The specifics of the plot, however, are up to the listener.
Only five of the 14 songs on "Hot Rail" feature lyrics. "Ballad of Cable Hogue" depicts an outlaw -- voiced by Burns in a weather-beaten baritone -- who contentedly lives "out yonder where the snakes and scorpions run." Against a backdrop of dusty, reverbed guitars, the protagonist trusts a mysterious French woman to hide his stash of gold. Things go awry. (Never mind what the mademoiselle was doing out in the American desert. We've all seen enough Japanese and Italian westerns to know that anyone can claim a little bit of the Southwest for their own.)
Elsewhere, the lonesome, determined travelers are of a more modern stripe: At least three songs feature a person jumping in a car and leaving a lover in the dust. "Roads never lead where they're supposed to go," drawls Burns on "Drenched." "They just twist round and round."
It's Calexico's music, though, that adds depth to these sparse, evocative images. Convertino and Burns -- who played together in the Arizona bands Giant Sand and Friends of Dean Martinez -- are both multi-instrumentalists. With the help of a few friends, "Hot Rail" is thick with vibes, marimba, cellos, organs, violins and guitars. Some tracks play with flamenco flourishes, while others star mournful accordions. Still others divert from traditional Southwest sounds. "Fade" is a hushed, complex web, stretching a velvety lounge vibe for nearly eight minutes. "Mid-Town" garnishes a growling bass with white noise and "Sonic Wind" is a tense, lilting pop song with powerful drum-snaps and whispered vocals that sound like a car radio fading in and out.
Westerns typically conclude with a rich sunset, but "Hot Rail" goes out with a gentle, pastoral instrumental -- punctuated with city sounds -- that evokes an urban sunrise. It's a soothing end-note, but you get the feeling that the rested travelers will soon shake off their sleep and hit the road again.