The irony of Calexico is that, despite being named after a border town in California, they are a born-and-bred Arizona band. Alternating between WaveLab studios and their own homes in Tucson, the Tex-Mex stalwarts made a career out of channeling distinctly Arizonan rhythm. For their ninth studio album, The Thread that Keeps Us the band finally made their way to their namesake state, and found a home in the gorgeous expanse of Stinson Beach. The resulting record is an eclectic set of story-songs that range from jittery to assured lessons about living in a chaotic time.
Calexico have always been a band marked by their refusal to settle into one single sound. Their records range from jazz fusion to Americana to Latin-based post-rock sometimes all in a single track. In a word, their music is transient. It is then fitting that the album that finally finds them displaced from their hometown doesn’t shake the foundation of what the band does. Stinson Beach is a place nearly impossible to describe with water you can see through and mountains to take one’s breath away. This is the environment in which The Thread That Keeps Us was crafted and the mesmerizing beauty of nature is present in these songs to be sure.
“Girl in the Forest” is perhaps the most immediately haunting track on the album. Sixty years ago, in the timeless shadow of the Muir Woods, Kim Novak lingered next to James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo and mourned “all the people that were born and have died while the trees went on living”. Ten miles west of that scene you would find the recording studio Calexico made their ode to a different girl in perhaps the same forest. The track is built on a simple melodic guitar rift underpinned by the longing, dread filled lyrics of Joey Burns.
World-worn anxiety is of course inescapable, given the political climate we are in. Burns approached the times by reverting back to what he knew best: “Instead of writing straight-up protest songs, I want to tell stories.” Penultimate track “Thrown to the Wild” is the best story on the album. A hazy bus station sits in wait for the red eye, the character’s teary eyed and worn down. The claustrophobic jaunt of the song’s first half gives way to a caustic hum of sorts punctuated by mumble harmony. It is a deeply human moment of chaos.
The Thread that Keeps Us is filled with little stabs at humanity like this. The eccentricities of the record come into focus even more with the Spanish sung “Flores y Tamales.” The nearly sci-fi Latin groove comes smack dab in between the quiet catharsis of “The Town and Miss Lorraine” and the album’s most danceable number “Another Space.” The three-track sequence is a reminder of Calexico’s innumerable talents.
For a band that is so deep into their artistic endeavor it is remarkable to find them producing such an expansive collection of music. The most impressive thing about the Thread That Keeps Us is how it juggles the unease of day-to-day life with the overwhelming beauty of the nature that envelopes those experiences. Calexico have always been a consistent staple of the indie rock landscape. To find them still making lush albums filled with character is one of the early treats of the musical year.