Calexico - The Thread That Keeps Us

by Mark Moody Rating:8 Release Date:2018-01-26
Calexico - The Thread That Keeps Us
Calexico - The Thread That Keeps Us

I caught Calexico live back in their earlier years opening for Pavement shortly after the release of their outstanding Black Light album.  The band brought a mixture of high desert lonesome with a grimy lowrider manifold exhaust throatiness in its early days after exiting Howe Gelb’s Giant Sand.  Not many bands have pulled off the what seems so obvious a mix of indie rock with traditional Mexican music, but Calexico was mining it well back then with a darker overtone to their primarily instrumental mix.  Of course, much earlier Los Lobos brought a more standard, but nonetheless excellent, roots based bar band approach and more recently David Wax Museum has been heavily influenced by the rhythms and cadences of our Southern neighbor so much so that a donkey’s jawbone is required instrumentation for the band.  Growing up in a border state myself, I have always loved the idea of the musical melding of the US/Mexican cultures but the level of output in that vein has been pretty anemic.  So of course I was revved up to see Calexico perform, but it has still stuck in my craw almost twenty years later that the band in less delicate words told the crowd to go fornicate with ourselves because they were sure we didn’t know who the Minutemen were.  Well, being a big fan of that Southern California punk band I was morally offended, but nonetheless they cranked out a cooly ominous version of ‘Jesus and Tequila’ that rattled the rafters, so all is forgiven.  

As the band, which is essentially advertised as its central core of Joey Burns (guitar/vocals) and John Convertino (drums and percussion), has soldiered on over a few decades their earlier piss and vinegar stance has turned to a more mature salt and pepper countenance both in appearance and musical content.  However, I’m happy to report that at least musically the band has let a little more fire and noise back into their sound making The Thread That Keeps Us their strongest effort since Feast of Wire.  The earlier album was where they migrated to a cleaner melodic sound and brought forth a more populist view on songs like ‘Across the Wire’ and ‘Sunken Waltz’.  Though the lyrical content here is only vaguely political and avoids anything nearing controversy the band’s sound was their initial strength and on several key tracks that is back in full force and only benefits from the band’s experience.  

In only a brief “uh oh” moment the album opens with what sounds just like the opening strains of U2’s ‘With or Without You’, but a muscular guitar line quickly migrates the song to a rollicking affair about “love in the age of the extremes” with the protagonist willing to travel from the depths of the Earth (in the form of installation artist James Turrell’s work in progress Roden Crater) to the outer reaches of the galaxy.  Maybe a timeless sentiment put in a more artful turn, but the blustery solo and more aggressive sound are what bring this track home.  More fiery guitar appears on the following track ‘Voices in the Field’ and the song benefits from an almost messy, greasy feel like the best plate of Tex-Mex enchiladas.  The brief instrumental ‘Spinball’ (in honor of a low tech but ingenious drum accessory) gives way to the strongest two tracks of the album.

‘Under the Wheels’ with its cutting organ riff punctuated by horns recalls the best of their Black Light glory days.  The track pulses along with a smoldering energy as Burns turns in one of his better vocal performances.  This is followed by the strongest of the softer songs ‘The Town and Miss Lorraine’ which simply put is the loveliest song this band has recorded.  The brushed drums and sympathetic instrumentation pair perfectly with Burns’ beautifully vulnerable vocal.  The frailness of his voice that becomes apparent as he pushes himself on the longer passages becomes an innate strength here.  The lyrics themselves are a bit cryptic, but the images are vibrant with the description of a “snake of engine oil” leaking from a highway accident being particularly evocative.  This pair of songs, though only linked by proximity, show the band at both their most culturally rich musically and at the apex of their maturity.  The beauty of ‘Lorraine’ is only rivaled a bit later in the album by the gorgeous instrumental “Unconditional Waltz” which is a bewitching melding of warm acoustic guitar and horns.  It does sound a bit reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’, but soars effortlessly on its own.

The second half of the album doesn’t hold up quite as well with the highlight being ‘Eyes Wide Awake’ with its muddy swirl of treated guitars and bass.  The funk workout of ‘Another Space’ is fine as well and the gritty ‘Dead in the Water’, which sounds like a fuzzed out merging of ‘Love Potion #9’ and ‘Stranglehold’, has a cool retro sound even if the cop gone bad lyrics don’t quite wash.  The pretty ‘Girl in the Forest’ and ‘Music Box’ are sweet sentiments but tend to the dewey eyed which showcase how the band has gone from kicking out the footlights in their early years to switching on night lights.  There are plenty of examples though of the band finding its old spark which make the album well worthwhile. Perhaps The Thread That Keeps Us could have been trimmed by a few of its fifteen tracks, but you certainly wouldn’t have wanted to lose the frayed end where this album is at its best.  An overall welcome return to form that hopefully brings some new and old fans into the fold.                                 

Overall Rating (2)

5 out of 5 stars
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