Calexico are not an overtly political band but the geographical setting for this classic album gives it a renewed topicality and adds a further dimension to the music.
The physical and metaphorical border between Mexico and the US was defined by author Carlos Fuentes as 'The Crystal Frontier', named after the huge glass building in which clandestine cleaners were employed.
This was the title of one of the nine stories in Fuentes' novel of this name which was subsequently used as the basis to one of Calexico's most celebrated tracks. Preceding that song by two years, 'The Black Light', reaches the grand age of 20 this year.
After cutting their teeth as backing musicians to Howe Gelb's Giant Sand, and having guested on albums by notable artists including Vic Chesnutt, Richard Buckner and Michael Hurley, Joey Burns and John Convertino were in the mood to make a mark in their own right and experiment more fully with the Southwestern Americana sound which came to be defined as 'Desert Rock'.
The duo released 'Spoke' in 1997 on Quarterstick Records but 'The Black Light' is the first album that can properly be defined as a true Calexico record. It boasts a significantly more fleshed out sound thanks to additional musicians on pedal steel, violin, spanish guitar and trumpets.
In his liner notes, Burns recalls the thrilling novelty of the initial recording sessions at Wavelab Studios: “The room sound and space in the performances remind me of the wide open feeling I had when first arriving to Tucson in the early 90’s. It’s a beautiful snapshot in time and place, and filled with heart".
From the opening twang of Gypsy's Curse you know you're in for something special. With two thirds of the 17 tracks being without vocals, the record often has the ambient feel of a soundtrack to an imaginary spaghetti western. And of all the instrumentals, the instantly recognizable Minas De Cobre (For Better Metal) remains a band's signature track.
But then again, the opening lyrics to The Ride Pt.2 ("Beneath the neon hub of downtown") could be the first line of a novel and the narrative that follows of "drugstore cowboy nights" and "graveyard shifts" together with the building tension of the album that culminates with Bloodflow makes the literary dimensions still more vivid.
The repacking and alternative formats are the carrots to tempt dedicated fans to buy the album all over again. The Double LP vinyl versions (black vinyl, and limited edition clear vinyl) are on heavy 180g vinyl and packaged in a gatefold cover with an embossed silver logo and there's a large format 8 page booklet together with a download coupon. The Double CD version comes in a 3 panel digipak with a 24 page booklet.
Musically speaking, a second full length LP comprising eleven, mostly instrumental, bonus tracks are a further lure, although three of those are alternative mixes of Minas De Cobre.
Moreover, Man Goes Where Water Flows is simply an extended treatment of Where Water Flows that made it to the original album and two tracks (El Morro and Glowing Heart Of The World) have already been released on their Road Atlas tour CD.
Of the four 'new' tunes, Lacquer is the only one that features vocals and the atmospheric Too Much Sprawl is the most impressive.
Personally, I would have loved it if they could have added tracks from the John Peel Sessions around the time of the album's release which included a sublime version of Minutemen's 'Jesus And Tequila'.
Over the past two decades, Calexico have slowly drifted onto a more conventional pop-rock path. Although they have made many fine albums since, 'The Black Light' remains their defining statement and encapsulates everything that is essential about the band.