While it’s hardly commonplace to characterise a band’s sound by its moisture levels, there’s an arid quality to Calexico’s brand of Tex-Mex noir that’s impossible to miss. Whether it’s the scratched guitar twang and cracked-ribcage drumming of central duo Joey Burns and John Convertino, or the regular whine of hoarse mariachi trumpets, the band have built a remarkably consistent back catalogue off the back of sun-bleached border towns and the trials of their dusty denizens. Calexico play songs that know their place – some shady bar on the US-Mexico border, with no body of water deeper than a shot glass in sight.
With all that in mind, Burns and Convertino’s decision to relocate along the Gulf Coast to New Orleans to record their seventh full-length Algiers, even naming the album after the neighbourhood in which they recorded, might set off a few alarm bells among long-time fans. No need to fret, though – while the climate of Calexico’s new hangout might have injected a drop or two of moisture into this set, Algiers is no betrayal of the band’s parched roots.
Humidity aside, New Orleans proves a good home for the band for other reasons. The Big Easy is a spaghetti junction of criss-crossing musical styles, a natural home-from-home for a band that deftly mixes Americana, mariachi, country, jazz and indie rock to create something instantly recognisable. There’s also a darker side to the city that speaks to the band’s fascination with the unseen threat – New Orleans has got the party covered, and the funeral the morning after. According to Burns, “The place is strong and bold, soulful to the core, but surrounded by a sea of darkness. There is a heaviness there that I like”.
Whatever voodoo the city worked on Calexico, there’s no doubting its power. While 2006’s Garden Ruin, the band’s last major step away from its niche, was a bounty of brilliant moments, its straight-ahead country/rock approach sacrificed a little too much of that unmistakable Calexico spirit. Here, Convertino and Burns have found a way to deepen and broaden their sound without compromising any of their distinctive aesthetic.
One thing that Algiers does share with Garden Ruin is a stripped-back tracklist in comparison to their other albums, and there’s barely so much as a misstep across the album’s 12 songs, let alone a weak link. If you’re looking for classic Calexico, look no further than windswept opener ‘Epic’ or the smoky bar-room shimmy of ‘Sinner in the Sea’. The title track, meanwhile, feels like a paean to everything the band have achieved so far, a slow-burn instrumental that morphs between Cuban dance steps and dramatic Morricone-inflected gusts of guitar with a seamlessness that encapsulates the dexterous musical blending that has become their calling card.
If there’s a defining feature to Calexico’s progression on Algiers, it’s a newfound intensity. When compared to the mystery and poise of the band’s previous output, the heart of this album is noticeably closer to the surface, both musically and emotionally. ‘Splitter’ grooves to a thrumming rhythm and an open-hearted melodic sense that you’d be more likely to find on a Drive-By Truckers record than anything else by Calexico. And while Burns and Convertino have dabbled in shadowy menace before, never has it been rawer than on ‘Para’, a starkly grim confessional with eerie guitars building up to an apocalyptic chorus that seems to signal the song’s commitment to its own bleakness: “Take it down/Take it all the way down”.
Elsewhere, there are other signs that the band are moving towards a more demonstrative style. ‘Fortune Teller’ channels the Bruce Springsteen of ‘Atlantic City’ and ‘The River’ with its folksy guitar and homespun soul-searching. ‘No Te Vayas’, a Mexican ballad led by Calexico’s trumpeter Jacon Valenzuela and Jairo Zavala of Depedro, nods to the likes of Beirut in its tenderness and authentic instrumentation, despite drawing from a different cultural well. Even the album’s quietest moments pack their own gut-punches; ‘Better and Better’ is desperation painted with a hushed voice and a Spanish guitar, a song that presents small-town escape not as a grand American adventure, but as the last resort of the bone-weary. “Is it better?” asks Burns in a lonely whisper. “Is it better, with nowhere to go?”
Calexico – and all the other artists mentioned in this review, for that matter – draw their power from a true sense of place. A sound that instantly leads the listener into its world, whether it’s Calexico’s border town or Springsteen’s endless highway. But Algiers and its New Orleans excursion proves that evoking a consistent world needn’t tie an artist down to old, familiar haunts. These worlds exist as much in the head as in reality, and with enough commitment and skill, you can pack them up and take them with you, wherever you go.