Calexico | Algiers
Borrowing their name from the small town of 40,000 folk which borders the US and Mexico, Arizona-based six-piece Calexico have been plundering a smorgasbord of sounds from both sides of that divide for more than 15 years now.
Four years on from the guest-laden career high Carried to Dust, Joey Burns, John Convertino and co. decamped to New Orleans to record album number seven. Algiers was named after the city neighbourhood which housed the converted Baptist church the band worked in.
On first glance, it seems a mismatch given Calexico’s sound more commonly evokes dramatic, endless drought-ridden deserts, mariachi horns and Ennio Morricone soundtracks than the jazz, blues and funk associated with the Big Easy.
But from reading promotional interviews with Burns and Convertino, it is clear the decision to skedaddle 1,400 miles west from Tucson was an invigorating one for the group – even if it hasn’t resulted in too many detectible changes to their trademark sound.
That’s not to say this is a disappointing, or predictable, record. In fact, although Calexico LPs tend not to be an immediate winner, once they worm their way into the consciousness a good two-thirds of the songs on Algiers are a triumph.
Understated opener ‘Epic’ is followed by some truly vintage Calexico on ‘Splitter’, which melds the finest bits of American and Latin music like only they know how, throwing in a memorable chorus to boot.
The crunchier rock sound of ‘Sinner in the Sea’ is followed by a lilting, deeply affecting vocal from Burns on ‘Fortune Teller’. The latter finds the singer overcoming his troubles and travelling “on the way to finer things”, before giving way to the dramatic sweep of ‘Para’ and the delicious instrumental title track. Perhaps best of all is the sprawling elegance of the Cuban salsa-influenced ‘Puerto’, featuring Spanish singer and guitarist Jairo Zavala.
Prior to the brilliant Carried to Dust, this scribe tended to find some of Calexico’s recorded output frustratingly inconsistent. For every Crystal Frontier or Across the Wire – perhaps still the apex of their irresistible Tex-Mex blend – there seemed to be a pair of incidental, shoulder-shruggingly noodly tracks.
A similar problem rears its head towards the tail end here due to a couple of unremarkable, borderline tuneless numbers. But, just as things are threatening to fizzle out, the sun goes down on Algiers with a winner in the form of the slow-burning, pedal steel-embellished dreaminess of ‘Vanishing Mind’.
Those who see fit to splash out on the deluxe double disc edition are in for an added treat: Spiritoso is a 12-track live album performed with symphony orchestras in Vienna and Potsdam this summer. It contains renditions of some of Calexico’s very finest moments, including the downright joyous Inspiracion and a quite brilliant version of Minas De Cobre (For Better Metal), an instrumental highlight from 1998′s The Black Light.