Released: Monday 10 September 2012
Those desert troubadours from Tuscon, Arizona are back after a four year gap from their last brilliant and critically acclaimed original studio album 2008's Carried to Dust (not counting the soundtracks to 2011's The Guard and 2010's Circo). Was the four year wait worth it?
At first listen this reviewer was not quite sure, but Joey Burns and John Convertino are not to be underestimated. After a couple more listens I was hooked; it's a subtle complexity and cultural melting-pot influences- a typical hybrid of indie/Americana/country/Latin American/classic rock instrumentation and arrangements which gets more entrancing with each listen, even if it doesn't quite reaching the highs of 2003's Feast of Wire. And while lead singer Joey Burn's voice may still be too understated and restrained for some (the lyrics can be at times hard to hear and you wish for a bit more emotiveness), it does let the beguiling music come to the fore. This has always been the great thing about Calexico, and their self-professed influences include a lot of instrumental music by people like Link Wray, Duane Eddy and Ennio Morricone, as well as of course traditional Latin American folk instrumentals and 50s jazz.
Recorded in New Orleans with co-producer Craig Schumacher in the neighbourhood of the title, the music reflects the recording location only tenuously in its atmosphere. So don't expect them to break out into boogie woogie or marching band music. The album's instrumental title track, with its Latin guitar and percussion, pedal steel, accordion and Link Wray-like guitar power chords, and the Spanish language 'No Te Vayas', featuring strong guest vocals from Jacob Valenzuela and Jairo Zavala of Depedro (former collaborators on Carried), attests to their influences.
Combining those influences are what make Calexico so great and unique. What has changed is the more confessional lovelorn nature of some of the songs ('Para' was apparently almost left out because it was judged too confessional), although the narrative-driven, third-person songs are still very much present. There is an air of mystery and darkness about the album, athough one could also argue that has ever been present in Calexico's work. Some of the songs are perhaps more accessible too to the casual fan, but the album as a whole doesn't lose Calexico's originality.
Opener 'Epic', despite its title, is an understated but engaging start with an lilting rhythm and nicely layered strumming guitars, which builds to an interesting break with Moog synth, chordal electric guitar riffs, spiky acoustic guitar, and a rousing chorus with muted brass and picked-out piano. The more upbeat 'Splitter' is probably the most commercial and generic song on the album, but still engages with its joyous snatches of brass, pounding percussion and counterpointed, doubled piano and glockenspiel minor chord motif lending it a touch of sadness and nostalgia. However, these songs, along with 'Puerto' - an exciting cinematic style showdown of a song with brushed percussion, Latin acoustic guitar, mariachi brass, rhythm switches and lyrics in Spanish and English about violent conquest - are the upbeat exceptions to the album, at least in terms of tempo.
'Sinner in the Sea' still keeps up a good pace while being a downbeat song about being stranded and lonely, mixing to great effect Cuban style percussion and piano, brass (of course)guitar, and west coast guitar and moog (which Burns describes as "LA Woman heads to the Florida Keys and drives across the water to Cuba"). Burns also lets loose on the vocals here showing he can have more range, and comes across all Jim Morrison at one point to the accompaniment of a frenzied Doors style organ. Maybe on Monday a song about a mourning lover ("I followed what I thought was your voice/But it was just the riverside"), similarly effectively combines a melancholic mood with energetic rhythm and a rocking guitar solo.
Other songs like the more simple, understated and haunting ballad Fortune Teller (with it's ghostly 'oohs' and gently rolling double-bass line). The beautifully mysterious pedal-steel laden (great playing from Paul Niehaus who also plays Moog synth) aforementioned Para; and the elegant and sweeping strings enhanced closer The Vanishing Mind, show that Calexico are still one of the finest purveyors of atmospheric and interesting downbeat music there is. Long may they continue doing what they do.