Pointless List 1: Mariachi Brass
I love Mexican "Mariachi" brass. I love when Rock bands put them to use. I love the instantly evocative desert romanticism they conjure. Sunset, senoritas, tequila, one last night in town before stealing back over the border. Peckninpah, B. Traven, Jim Harrison, Cormac McCarthy etc etc. I love it.
I also love a pointless list. Alternative suggestions welcome but will probably be scorned. And so:
5 Mariachi Horns in Rock
1. Love - Alone Again Or
Had to be. When first I heard this, the opening track on "Forever Changes", a mainstay on every Classic Album list ever written, it had to bear a heavy load. I had massively high expectations. And though the album as a whole was perhaps not quite as astounding as I had been led to believe it would be (while still being brilliant), this song was better than I had expected.
It is amazing from the first bars - that finger-picked guitar intro rolling itself louder in seconds before the band quietly kicks in. The way the strings are just colour, a flash of light behind the vocal and the band, then squall up with a weird menace towards the chorus. The way the messy harmony vocal is so declamatory for that chorus. The way the song seems to trickle to a halt in more acoustic guitar every few seconds, then rebuild itself anew. The riddle of the lyrics. But most of all, of course, those horns, which mass and underline the melody of that simple, ernest statement: "And-I-will-be-alone-again-tonight, my dear" for every chorus. Then there is the horn solo, a clean line of melody in duet with strings, climaxing in that chorus once again, only without a vocal this time, the horns absolutely in the spotlight. It is beautiful and unforgettable.
2. Super Furry Animals - Demons
A bruised psychedelic piece which is mainly for guitar and organ, "Demons" sounds like it could have been recorded at any time post 1968, which is exactly what SFA were aiming for, I imagine. The guitars are almost gentle, in the main, little eddys and clouds of retro alongside that bubbling organ sound and some vaguely space-age sound effects. And then the song breaks down and a serene and stately mariachi horn glides in, sounding mythic and timeless and not remotely incongruous. There is something moving about the way it phrases its melody, just once, before the song and the guitars rise up once more and Gruff sings his gnomic, enigmatic lyrics which appear to address battles with ones own self-doubt and identity and perhaps even sanity. Upon hearing that they had a sizeable budget for a video to accompany this (No. 27 in the UK charts) Single, the Furries spent the money on a holiday in Colombia, where they shot a video on the cheap, echoing the latin flavour the horns impart...
3. The Raconteurs - The Switch And The Spur
There had to be at least one Western pastiche on this list, and this one makes such a virtue of its mariachi brass I couldn't ignore it. Plus its a great song. There is no chorus, just a brass refrain, which sounds like the theme from some early 60s Mexico-set Western in its yearning and romantic magnificence. The lyrics support this theory, while the band trash away at it for all they're worth.
4. The White Stripes - Conquest
Jack White likes Mariachi brass, you can tell. Mariachi brass ought to be right up his alley. He seems to be on some mission to utilize every instrument ever over the course of the White Stripes recording career, at any rate, and here he made great use of some brass. Its the first thing you hear, in fact - a corny, luchador fanfare, like something from an old Zorro serial, ushering in the song itself with no little flair. The thumping guitars then take over and drive the song along until we arrive at what suffices for a chorus. In the break between the two the horns bust into the song, a little splash of colour and melody against the heavy black of teh bassy guitar and drums backing track. For the chorus, White sings a yodelled "Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah" and the horns respond in kind, picking out a bold melody. It is short and brutal, a stabbing in a shadowy alley in some Mexican border town over a local prostitute, no witnesses, just blood and death. It is a great little song.
5. Calexico - Absolutely anything
Because they use Mariachi brass on probably at least half of their songs. Literally. Spotify them and see if I'm right. And because they integrate the brass within a traditional indie guitar-bass-drums-vocal framework so naturally and organically it appears perfectly seamless. Plus, they write good songs and they play them expertly. Plus, they use Morricone guitars when they aren't using Mariachi horns. Also because they cover "Alone Again Or" in concert and often play with a full Mariachi band onstage. They seem almost taken for granted. Theres a sort of "Oh, another excellent Calexico record" vibe whenever they release an album. Poor Calexico. At least they have the solace of the Mariachi horn. Which is no small thing.