Calexico – Algiers

January 01, 1970

(Anti-)

 

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Throughout their 16-year Calexico career to date, and even
prior to that when they were the Giant Sand rhythm section, Tucson’s Joey Burns and John Convertino have
always prided themselves on capturing
a sense of place. Even the novice listener coming upon their music would get it: the wide open expanse of the
desert and the intricate internal rhythms of the barrio doubly inform their
tunes whether being cast in overtly traditional terms – say, a dusty spaghetti
western twang or the midsong arrival of Mariachi horns – or via subtler
inflections, such as a lyrical nod to a Mexican literary figure, or a Charles
Mingus-inspired instrumental flourish (see: the jazz composer’s ’62 masterpiece
Tijuana Moods). I bring this up in
order to establish full disclosure: I’ve known Joey and John since the early
‘90s, when I also lived in Tucson,
and have always understood the aforementioned sense of place to be that of the
Old Pueblo and the surrounding border region.

 

By way of additional disclosure: I penned the bulk of the
liner notes to last year’s Road Atlas,
a sprawling vinyl box set that brought together all of Calexico’s
limited-edition tour releases (it covered 1999’s tour EP 98-99 Road Map through 2010’s Circo soundtrack). In those notes, I meditated on the
term “desert noir” as a kind of shorthand to describe Calexico, arriving at this
thought: “There’s something so unmistakably, permeably Tucson about Calexico’s music that it very
nearly defies explication. Their songs conjure memories of wandering around the
barrio and staring at the simplicity and elegance of the structures, and of
hiking around in the western desert among the saguaro and cholla while brown
lizards skitter out of the path of my boots; of the distinctive late afternoon
pink hue that coats the northern arc of mountains just as the sun is setting,
and the oddly fragrant scent that accompanies an incoming summer monsoon; or
sometimes, of just hanging out in a local dive and listening to some of the
most compelling music – indie rock, blues, folk, jazz, more – of my adult
life.”

 

Yet it’s important to note that for Calexico, sitting still
has never been an option, which is
no doubt behind Burns and Convertino’s decision to decamp, along with producer
and fellow Tucsonan Craig Schumacher, to New Orleans, to record their first
studio album in four years. Both musicians have always had ears finely-tuned to
their surroundings, so Algiers serves as both the record’s title and
the name of the neighborhood where they recorded in a converted church. True to
their nature, however, they didn’t set out to make “their New
Orleans album”; you won’t find any Dixieland ditties or Mississippi meditations
here. Instead, Algiers is a clear-headed continuation of the signature Calexico melting-pot
aesthetic leavened with a crucial Southern sway – and maybe a hint or two of
Marie Laveau’s creepy voodoo. The album surreptitiously
wafts into earshot like fog under the door: whispery, shuddery opener “Epic” is
a sonic quilt of strummed acoustics, sparsely-pecked ivories, and ghostly
harmonies, plus the hypnotic drone of cello and horns. Later, in the title
track, you get a pan-ethnic melange encompassing everything from Italian café
music and Latin American rhythms to Cajun-flecked shuffles and cosmic cowboy
psychedelia (check the pedal steel). And in the raucous “Sinner In the Sea” the
band is heard morphing from a rich Cuban rumba motif (“There’s a piano playing
on the ocean floor/ Between Havana and New Orleans,” sings Burns) into a
rumbling/blazing slice of surf-rock and then back again.

 

Longtime aficionados of, er, desert noir, never fear; the watchful presence of Tucson
is also intact on Algiers. There’s the Spanish language “No Te Vayas,” for example, a Mariachi-fueled
midtempo delight, and the heartbreakingly romantic waltz “Solstice of a
Vanishing Mind,” orchestral and cinematic and evocative of those pink sunsets I
mentioned above. Elsewhere, bask in the lush cohesion displayed on the likes of
“Splitter” (a thrumming, insistent slice of folk-rock in the tradition of 2003
album Feast of Wire‘s  “Not Even Stevie Nicks”) or “Maybe on Monday” (dreamy
and yearning, yet burning with a twangy intensity, like “Two Silver Trees” on
2008’s Carried to Dust)

 

The music on this remarkable record creeps up on you, and
subtleties abound; with Burns’ vocals mic’d very close and much of the
instrumental flourishes occurring deep in the mix, it’s an intimate affair and
perhaps the first Calexico release that could be described as “a headphone
album.” No two songs are alike, yet all of the dozen here are interrelated in
vestigial ways, lending it an uncommon weight and heft and rendering yet another
sense of place for Calexico. That place is the ethereal America, the idealized America, the subliminal America, the aggregate America, and
while it ultimately is yours to find (or overlook), with Calexico’s steady musical
hand to guide you, I’m confident you will.

 

DOWNLOAD: “Sinner
in the Sea,” “Fortune Teller,” “Maybe on Monday,” Solstice of a Vanishing Mind”
FRED MILLS

 

 

 

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