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Calexico – The Thread That Keeps Us

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Calexico - The Thread That Keeps UsI had a real love for Calexico back when they first started. There was something about Joey Burns and John Convertino disappearing into a shack in Arizona somewhere and reproducing the sound of their environment in such a charming and understated way. That dusty, warm sound, the sensation of lounging underneath the canopy of an orange grove as these subtle, Mexican-influenced, horn-infused delights float around your head like the last rays of a spring sun. As time went on, so the band grew and started to incorporate more styles and textures but somehow, along the way, managed to lose a little bit of their magic as the progression continued culminating in their arrival at this point, nine official albums, countless self-released albums and twenty years in.

I am not saying that they aren’t still a great band and to be honest The Thread That Keeps Us is certainly as good as 2015’s Edge Of The Sun, and quite an improvement on the previous rather lacklustre efforts. Jacob Valenzuela and Martin Wenk have now been members for the best part of ten years or more, and perhaps those additions do make for a more expansive and less introverted sound — or should I say, less shadowy or mysterious. But as a band producing what could loosely be described as Americana, you would struggle to find one better equipped or more desirous of taking their dusty journey in other directions.

I would love to know the group dynamic and their approach to songwriting now that so many years are under their belts. Is it still a team effort between Convertino and Burns, or is the band tending to be shaped more in Joey’s image? Maybe the The Western Suite album released by Convertino with Naim Amor in 2016 fulfils his desires for these sorts of influences and allows Burns to take more songwriting control in Calexico.

Anyway, The Thread That Keeps Us contains possibly the greatest variety of song styles of any of their albums so far. Across the fifteen tracks of the standard release, we are treated to strummed country tales of love, apocalyptic waltz-inflected tales of disaster, surprisingly funky workouts and even a dark blast of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club-style guitar rock along with some of their more regular fare. It makes for a satisfying and remarkably diverse listen.

The band have chosen to relocate from Arizona to California for the recording of The Thread That Keeps Us and have made a conscious decision to inject it with more power. There is a definite profusion of guitar, and it seems to have supplanted the venerable trumpet that was the backbone of earlier albums. I do think, considering the current situation in the USA, that anyone with a political bone in their body and any kind of humanistic tendencies is going to find the state of flux there impossible to ignore, and it must be difficult for it not to infuse the music. There is probably more to be frustrated or concerned about right now, and it is reflected in some of the tracks presented here.

Funnily enough, opener “End Of The World With You” has a rather epic 1990s feel to it; the shuffling beat, the slightly skipping rhythm and somewhat histrionic guitar sound, but there is joy here, and with its end of the road kind of vibe it starts the album off with a definite thrust. Waltz-like follower “Voices In The Field” though has rather disastrous imagery, “Running through fields of fire and smoke” evokes some terrible event and there is plenty of emotion in Joey’s voice. An electric guitar follows the vocals as a very muted trumpet tags along like the smoke hanging in the air above their heads. “Let me hear you sing”, Joey opines towards the end, looking for hope in a hopeless situation and the taste of the positivity that the band are aiming for.

Things become faster and fuzzier on “Bridge To Nowhere”, but the rather tragic drama in the hollow guitar and keening voice are matched by the lyrics: “From the empty streets to abandoned homes, there’s a stinging feeling in my eyes”. The band are motoring at this point, but the despair in the air can’t be alleviated: “It’s raining ashes and we’re coming up for air”. The talk of broken promises leaks into the moody, drawn-out intro to “Spinball”, with Convertino’s tom rolls and cymbal flourishes allowing a brief instrumental respite from the downbeat lyrical content.

But don’t go thinking The Thread That Keeps Us is a downer of an album, as the delightful funk organ workout of “Unconditional Waltz” really changes the vibe. The clipped guitar and an unusual bass rumble give it a swagger and sway that is really welcome in their sound. The trumpet break is dreamy, but is one of the few tracks where it is really given the opportunity to stretch its legs. I miss the trumpet’s presence, but if the kind of changes in sound that this track and the reggae rhythms of “Under The Wheels” brought to the party, then maybe it is worth it.

A welcome visit from the vocals of Jairo Zavala on ‘Flores y Tamales’ inject the old Tex-Mex vibe; a little trip down memory lane, replete with spacey keyboard effects to give it a tasteful little update and here and there we find sweet little country love songs and even a blast of heavy psych guitar, crying all over the open body of “Eyes Wide Awake”. It is interesting, but as the album heads towards its finale, so the space that was missing from the earlier tracks starts to appear, as if the band is trying to atone for the heaviness of the first segment.

After the gruff-voiced menace of the BRMC-inflected “Dead In The Water” and its “I’ll take you and the whole world with you” (is this a Trump reference?) threat, things start to open up again. We can see the stars in the desert sky on the vibrato-led instrumental “Shortboard”, with its wavering organ and brushed drums, and the soaring desert wind guitar of the penultimate track ‘Thrown To The Wild’ delivers space aplenty. Final track “Music Box” leaves us with the line “Here’s a little gift from me to you”, and in all truth, The Thread That Keeps Us truly is a real gift to the listener.

For all my reservations at the start, I have to accept that bands progress and change. Calexico are doing that, and they should do so. Nobody wants a retread of the first album to be released every couple of years, but there is the odd glimpse in the rear-view mirror of where and why the band started, but it is all rolled up in this forward thinking, modern version of the band. The Thread That Keeps Us is a really good album and a worthy continuation of their legacy. Clearly, they have more and more to offer the listener and the utter desire to do so. Over the course of this LP, I have been utterly swayed and I am sure that any other interested listener will find plenty to enjoy here. They are a vital addition to the American canon and long may they search.

-Mr Olivetti-

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