Two decades of mariachi instrumentals, dusty Americana and shades of film noir have made Calexico synonymous with the American Southwest. Every reverb-trickled riff evokes a barren landscape, and behind Joey Burns’ vocals stands a lonesome, troubled character who roams these lands. It’s a quality that’s uniquely Calexico’s, a sound so singular and inimitable that whatever permutations come through the band’s latest creations still inevitably bear the recognizable mark of a band whose identity is inextricably tied with the border region surrounding the town for which they’re named.
The source of inspiration for Calexico’s seventh album has changed to a certain degree, though not in a particularly obvious way. Following their 2008 album Carried to Dust, the band journeyed east from their hometown of Tucson, Ariz., to New Orleans, and named the album after the neighborhood where it was recorded. Yet in spite of the change of scenery, Algiers doesn’t explicitly borrow from NoLa tradition, which is probably for the best. A band bearing an identity as strong as Calexico’s doesn’t drop everything and adopt the swing of Dixieland or the swampy funk of the Meters. That being said, Algiers finds Calexico continuing on a linear path of progress from their earlier days as Morricone-inspired folk rockers to the complex and sophisticated songwriters they are today.
The general makeup of sounds that have informed Calexico’s sound all along — jazz, folk, country, surf rock, Flamenco, mariachi — all continue to be woven into Algiers‘ tapestry. Yet where Joey Burns and John Convertino once crafted albums of disparate parts, as if to pit pieces of incidental music against opening credit themes in a broader score, Algiers is entirely composed of pop songs, each one a slow burning and haunting blend of the band’s numerous, molten flavors. They begin with a track titled “Epic,” a description that has always fit the band’s music even if they had never put it so literally before. It’s a chilling strummer that expands into a Moog-driven creep of a chorus, but it finds a more upbeat, catchy neighbor in the bouncy, brassy “Splitter.” The gentle chords of “Fortune Teller” recall The Shins’ “New Slang,” whereas the slowly escalating “Para” becomes an intense and mournful dirge.
The connection that Calexico has with New Orleans, on a musical level, might not be so readily apparent, but their dark and mysterious sensibilities nonetheless seem a natural fit for a town of gothic architecture and above-ground cemeteries. That connection has brought out a truly rich and elegantly crafted album from the band, a collection that continues on the path they began walking in the `90s that somehow continues to lead somewhere new and intriguing.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.