Calexico – Algiers Review: Charming But Difficult To Love

Returning from a 4 year break, Calexico wield genres that shouldn’t sound good together and turn them into something to think about, while remaining easy listening. So why don't we love it?
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Returning from a 4 year break, Calexico wield genres that shouldn’t sound good together and turn them into something to think about, while remaining easy listening. So why don't we love it?

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It was 2008 when Calexico released ‘Carried To Dust’, and it seems the four-year break has done them well.

Temporarily relocating to New Orleans from Tucson for the recording of their seventh studio album, Calexico haven’t exactly changed their game here, merely polished it up with a Western influence gained from working outside of desert space.

‘Algiers’ (named after the neighbourhood in which it was conceived) lives up to the ‘desert noir’ tag they’ve gained since their formation in 1996. It’s evocative and emotional, but it’s nurtured in a way that the rest of their genre straddling sound has – very well indeed.

Opener, ‘Epic’, has all of the sensibilities that have come to be associated with Calexico - a soft romantic edge creeping through the layers of plucky, undulating guitar while Joey Burns’ vocals remain understated and drenched in longing.

While retaining the same rubber-stamped Latino-jazz, the guitar, horn and piano licks of ‘Splitter’ pump with the heartbeat of a New Orleans night while ‘Fortune Teller’ shows the band getting into deep water: “I can see my own way home, but I don’t like this dark road anymore, and I don’t wanna be alone for long, I don’t wanna be on this dark road for long.”

Calexico haven’t exactly changed their game here, merely polished it up with a Western influence gained from working outside of desert space.

Burns is in a sharing mood and ‘Para’ follows the infectious balladry, every bit as thoughtfully draining as its predecessor. By the singer’s own admission, it was close to being thrown from the final cut for being “too confessional.” Yet, it was the track that unveiled the album earlier in the year and Burns drawls, “the embrace becomes a shove” and “take it down, take it all down, down below the waterline.” It’s as entrancing as it is turbulent, with a loathsome air of breakdown in the mix that gets into your bones.

While the intense opening tracks of ‘Algiers’ sound like they’re brewing in a boiling kettle of despair, the mariachi tinted horns and meandering, melodic harmonies save it from over cooked melancholy and turn it into something on another level.

Songs such as the instrumental title track give breathing space but when the vocals return in ‘Maybe On Monday’, so does the overall theme: “When I woke up on Monday morning I wrote you a love song,” before a chorus of: “Say goodbye, to your love.”

It’s interesting that Burns would consider dropping a song for being too confessional when the entire record sounds like one big affirmation in itself. Like an alternative break-up album. They’re also known to run specific narratives through their LPs, with Burns even being quoted saying: “Narratives seem to find good company with the music we make.”

By the singer’s own admission, it [the track "Paras"] was close to being thrown from the final cut for being “too confessional.”

It makes for great listening – Calexico weld genres that shouldn’t sound good together and turn them into something to think about, while remaining easy listening.

It’s when you get under the layers that it loses some of its initial intrigue and the bits of dirt beneath the nails have a dark heart - even the Spanish sung ‘No Te Vayas’ (‘Don’t Go’ to us) sounds sad.

As good as ‘Algiers’ is, it’s difficult to love. While the music is charming, thoroughly listenable and cleverly constructed, the pain that comes with Burns and his lyrics are often tiring. It will almost certainly leave you with the proverbial ‘face on’ if you decide to get too involved.

Released September 11th on City Slang Records

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