I imagine a flat dry expanse somewhere in Texas, or maybe Arizona. The sun beats down mercilessly. There is nothing to hold back the wind that makes the dust dance through the scene. Part of the scene is a road, almost invisible under a thin layer of dust. Maybe there is one lonely structure in this landscape, a place to take temporary refuge from the road, a place where there is a worn but friendly face to greet those who are inevitably on their way somewhere else. There is loneliness, a hint of desperation, a sense that any joy will be short lived. This place sounds like the music on Happy Homestead by the Carnivaleros.
Musically, the wind is in leader Gary Mackender’s accordion lines, heard on almost every track. The emotions this place evokes are found in Mackender’s lyrics. His singing is a sort of resigned monotone, but it carries more emotion than I would expect. It is a musical voice, but the expressiveness is subtle, almost easy to miss. But the effect grows on you as you listen. Still, there are times when a different voice is needed. Mackender pegs guitarist Danny Krieger to sing Dashboard Jesus in a gruff tone of weary nostalgia. Krieger also delivers Dyin’s Gonna Be the Death of Me with a hint of rebelliousness mixed with resignation. For Alejandro, Mackender asks Catherine Zavala to express the fear that a Mexican wife feels as her husband attempts the dangerous journey to the United States. And the album’s most haunted song is The Wooden Leg; here, guest Kelley Hunt has written music to Mackender’s lyric, and she sings and plays piano, while Mackender adds subtle touches on accordion.
In addition to Mackender’s accordion, the instruments include drums, bass, and organ on some tracks. Sometimes, all of these are also played by Mackender; at other times, by the other members of the band. There are also guitar and background vocals on most tracks. Some tracks also have saxophone, and a few are colored with the wonderful trumpet playing of Dante Rosano. Rosano’s sound is somewhere between mariachi and spaghetti western, and is perfect for this material. This all adds up to an album that can sound like the Mexican accented rock of Los Lobos, or at other times like Calexico, but more often like something of its own. That border accordion is a key element to this sound.
All of this serves a set of lyrics which express doubt about the world, or about relationships. Black Cloud Over Oracle seems to me to be the thematic center of the album. Here, a peaceful gathering of young and old is disrupted by the arrival of the local police, who are determined to break up the gathering by force if necessary. There is no apparent reason for this. The song is based on an actual incident that occurred at a music and arts festival called GLOW, in Oracle AZ. The Carnivaleros had just taken the stage when the officers arrived. It is clear from Mackender’s account of the incident on the band’s website that he never learned of any reason for the actions of the police. At any rate, the song gives us an idyllic scene which cannot last. Soon enough, chaos reigns. Dyin’s Gonna Be the Death of Me takes a dim view of health fads; here again, the only assurance is that we all eventually die. The song Happy Homestead is a tongue in cheek account of an attempt to drop out of society entirely, by turning off the electricity and living only off what the land provides; Mackender concludes that this lifestyle choice means shutting out all of the people who ever meant anything to you.
Occasionally, there are glimmers of hope. Sally and John presents a man who watched as a girl he was interested in chased another man who never loved her; now she is on her own again, and maybe she would welcome his friendship. Mackender does not give a happy ending here, but the door is open at the end of the song. And despite the wife’s fears, we never learn the fate of Alejandro; maybe he makes it to the United States. Bird of Paradise is a piece of comic relief.
So Happy Homestead is a richly textured musical landscape, often upbeat in an ironic way. The words can be heavy going at times, but are very well expressed. And the performances suit the material perfectly. I hope Gary Mackender is in a happier mindset next time. But regardless, I hope he remembers me, so I can hear what The Carnivaleros do next.
The Carnivaleros: Sally and John
The Carnivaleros: Black Cloud Over Oracle