In Brief: As always, I enjoy the Latin music influence and the “desert noir” style. The numerous guest appearances make this one feel like a real community effort. But there’s still the pesky problem of too many “just OK” songs in the track listing, compounded by the presence of easily superior material among the bonus tracks.
I’m sure everyone who takes the time to pay attention to the details of the music that they listen to has at least one of those bands whose instrumental and/or songwriting skills they respect, but whose music doesn’t genuinely excite them. That’s sort of how I feel about Calexico much of the time, or at the very least when I first listen to a new album of theirs. I admire the way that their chosen style brings a multitude of desert scenes to life in my mind, the strong Latin music influence that keeps them straddling the border between two musical worlds much like the California border town they’re named after, the tireless work ethic that often finds them collaborating with some of the brightest and best in the worlds of indie and Latin music, and the influences of jazz and world music and other genres that guarantee there will always be something new and unexpected on one of their records. It’s just that most of it is so darn understated. Sometimes they’ll hit a genuine home run with a song that is just on fire or that plays up the eerie drama just right, but equally often, it’ll feel like they’re simmering and never quite coming to a boil. That may well be intentional, for all I know – a sort of refuge from the obvious, in-your-face hooks that dominate the worlds of pop and rock music. It fits their “off the beaten path” ethos better if I assume the hushed subtlety of a lot of their music is a feature, not a bug. But it means that it can take a long time to appreciate one of their records as a complete entity. For the most part I’m just culling favorite songs from each of them, using them to add a little flavor and spice to various playlists. Nothing wrong with that per se, but it can be a bit of a head-scratcher when some of those favorite songs didn’t even make the cut for the regular edition of the album.
Edge of the Sun, released about half a year ago, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. There’s a reason why I waited so darn long to review it (other than my usual backlog of reviews that may well never get written, of course). At first there were those few standout tracks, a few oddball ones that I at least noticed but wasn’t sure what to think of (synth on a Calexico record? For serious?!), and a lot of the rest of it sort of faded into the background. 12 tracks of that – to say nothing of the combined 18 on the special edition – was a lot for me to slog through, as it was my first several times through Algiers, a record which I very slowly went from being bored with to being fascinated with back in late 2012/early 2013. I noticed a heck of a lot of guest vocal contributions this time around – I think all but one of the tracks on the main disc feature a guest vocalist who is a solo artist in their own right or a member of another band Calexico has toured with at some point. A splash of Spanish lyrics here, quite a bit of instrumental goodness over there – lots of bits and pieces to keep me coming back and paying closer attention to the less “grabby” aspects of the record. Ultimately, it’s a more upbeat and diverse record than either Algiers or Carried to Dust, both records which I’m fond of but don’t go back to a whole lot. But with that diversity, I can’t help but feel like there’s a fair amount of wasted opportunity. Recognizing a few of the featured names from elsewhere, I can’t help but wonder why their contributions are so downplayed, even though that has pretty much always been Calexico’s way of doing things.
Thematically, Edge of the Sun might hit the mark even more strongly than their last few records, even if it’s the same mark they seem to be always aiming for. Calexico is sort of fascinated with its status of being trapped between different cultures, not fully belonging to one place or the other, but just sort of floating around, finding refuge in kindred spirits from unlikely places. (They seem to be bigger in Europe than here in their native North America. Go figure.) They appeal to that part of me that likes to look at small, out-of-the-way towns on maps in places tourists aren’t that likely to pass by and wonder what life is like there, or that likes to puzzle over what a smattering of foreign language lyrics might mean – having studied Spanish in high school certainly helps me, though I can’t speak it with anything approaching fluency, so at times I’ll choose to retain the mystery by not looking up the translation of the occasional line that I can’t decipher. You might be tempted to cry foul over the fact that it’s a band fronted by two white dudes and think they’re basically co-opting all of these Latin sounds, but I think it’s quite intentional that their music is distinct from fully “north of the border” indie folk bands and fully Latin American music. (It’s wise that they typically hand off the Spanish vocals to other band members who speak the language more fluently, or to their guests.) It dabbles all over the place because those cultural boundaries are porous in the various places their members and their extended network of musical friends have called home over the years. And that’s something I can pretty much always admire, even when the music created from those circumstances isn’t quite as attention-grabbing as I was hoping for.
1. Falling From the Sky
Even though it’s about dealing with loneliness, the opener is lighter and more upbeat than the more emotionally heavy tracks that have opened their last few tracks. The first thing you’ll notice after the drums kick in is this vintage synthesizer melody that just sort of smears its way across the horizon. It sounds oddly out of sync the acoustic guitars, the horn section that chimes in on the chorus, and pretty much every other sound that Calexico has ever made. It’s not a big enough presence in the song to be overbearing, but it reminds me of the late 70s and early 80s when everyone was obsessed with the synthesizer to the pint where bands would use it even if it was a bad fit for their sound. Calexico isn’t necessarily doing this out of some misguided sense of commercial appeal – they know the entire song is out of step with popular culture and they’ve probably done this intentionally. But as the initial hook of the song, it’s severely misleading. The song would lose nothing by removing the synth or by letting a lap steel or some other more country or folksy-sounding instrument take the lead. Still, the chorus is pure, vintage Calexico, with the mariachi-style horns injecting a strong dose of joy into the atmosphere while Ben Bridwell from Band of Horses joins the group on backing vocals. I’m not sure if the musical mood the lyric about writing a song in solitude and wanting to know what to do with those thoughts and feelings that no one else is around to hear, but hey, it’s fun.
2. Bullets and Rocks
The grittier electric guitar and an overall slower pace gives the second song more of a mysterious atmosphere. It’s another in a long list of their collaborations with Sam Beam aka Iron & Wine, and just as a lot of Beam’s songwriting examines the dark corners of life in the American South, Calexico’s lyrics are often haunted by the political and cultural upheaval surrounding American Southwest, particularly its border with Mexico. References to drug smugglers and starving families and possibly even that huge wall that a certain presidential candidate wants Mexico to foot the bill for are woven into this song that is foreboding in its refrain of “A future’s promised to you”. I haven’t really worked out all the details yet, because the way that the song just sort of ambles along, it’s not compelling enough to make me pay closer attention to what look like some rather meaty lyrics. Calexico and Iron & Wine have very distinct styles that normally mesh well together, but I don’t really hear a strong personality emerging from either side in this one, which is a shame given the issues they’re apparently trying to shed some light on.
3. When the Angels Played
The last time Calexico did a song with Midwestern folk singer Pieta Brown was the aptly titled duet “Slowness”, which despite its languid pace, turned out to be one of my favorites on Carried to Dust. This track is comparatively more upbeat, though it has such a light touch that I almost think the brisk pace of it makes it feel rushed. To be honest, I don’t feel like she’s contributing all that much this time around – a bit of a harmony vocal on the chorus, perhaps, but she never gets the spotlight like she did on their earlier collaboration. Again, a well-written lyric gets hampered by lackluster delivery. I get that Joey Burns is just a low-key guy in general, but the way he rushes through the words here, I feel like there isn’t really time to appreciate most of the sentiments about losing track of someone because they’re too busy chasing down various goals to stop and enjoy the happiness of just living in the moment. That’s my vague interpretation because once again, I don’t feel like going all that deep with a song that doesn’t seem to want me to spend much time with it.
4. Tapping on the Line
Here the subtle use of a female backing vocalist, and even the synthesized elements that were out of place earlier on, actually work in the band’s favor. This was actually the first track on the record to really get my attention, which is largely due to the inclusion of Neko Case, a woman whose vocal ability I greatly admire even if I find a lot of her solo material a bit off-putting. She harmonizes wonderfully with Joey here on this spacious, beautiful song that has just the right aura of mystique to it. At first I was reminded of the similarly refreshing acoustic guitar melody of “Hush” from Algiers, but the subject matter here is anything but comforting, since it’s all about people trying to communicate via modern technology while the big bad government bureaucrats may or may not be listening in. The light drum programming fits well with the theme of outdated machinery being used to circumvent the thoroughly modern surveillance. Burns has really hit on something special with his vocal melody here – even without Neko here to sweeten the deal, I’d say it was one of his most compelling performances thus far.
5. Cumbia de Donde
The jarring mix of a slinky Latin dance groove and those pesky vintage synthesizers really threw me for a loop when I heard this one. Now it’s my favorite track on the album. It’s no surprise that I’m often drawn to the more upbeat stuff, and I’m generally a fan of straight-up synthpop when it’s done well, but I’m usually quite strongly opposed to synth invading in more “organic” forms of music like the Latin rock style that Calexico has cultivated over the years. But when it’s a song about wandering from place to place and not knowing quite where the heck you fit in? Makes perfect sense to mishmash the genres in the most inappropriate way possible. I’m pretty much always going to love it when Calexico drops a liberal dose of Spanish lyrics into one of their songs, and here they deliver by the truckload, courtesy of Spanish singer Amparo Sanchez (also previously heard with the band on Carried to Dust‘s “Inspiración”) and a fun little call-and-response bit in the chorus: “I’m not from here (De dónde eres?) I’m not from there (¿A dónde vas?)” Translated, those Spanish bits mean “Where are you from” and “Where are you going”, respectively, and the band name-drops numerous places all throughout the Southwest and Central America as they find a bit of kinship with people who are constantly on the move. This song is a total party in a box – peppy horn parts, uber-cool electric guitar licks, pretty much everything puts a smile on my face here. I love that the basic message of it seems to be how not quite fitting in to any one of these places is a feature, not a bug.
6. Miles From the Sea
Images of the sea and the desert are purposefully juxtaposed in this melancholy track which finds a man living in the desert wondering what it’s like to be lost at sea. Something like that. I like the gentle, swirling rhythm of this song and the sense of longing in its melody, but once again I’m nagged by the overall pacing of it. I feel once again like the band is rushing through the details and I’m missing out on part of the experience as a result. Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno offers a nice harmony vocal here, but once again I can’t help but feel like the guest talent is being underused. In this case, she’ll actually be given a rare second chance to make an impression just a few tracks later.
Much like “El Gatillo” and “Algiers” on their last two albums, Calexico has dropped a delightful instrumental track right smack into the middle of the record. This one’s named after the neighborhood of Mexico City where I believe they recorded Edge of the Sun, and the picture painted by the rich Spanish guitars, accordions, and mariachi trumpets suggests a vibrant, colorful neighborhood where the fiestas run until the break of dawn. It’s very “old-world” in one sense, and yet you’ve got that mysterious electric guitar in the mix to add a bit of the “Spaghetti Western” feel as well. Total home run.
8. Beneath the City of Dreams
Consider this one a comeback for Gaby Moreno. She gets to sing the Spanish chorus of an otherwise English-language song, and by the time she shows up, everything’s been so engaging up to that point that the handoff from Joey’s vocals to hers is one of my favorite moments on the entire album. I don’t talk about drummer John Convertino very much; he’s the other founding member of the band alongside Joey, and he co-writes a lot of their material, but his playing style generally isn’t that flashy. Here, though, he establishes an up-tempo rhythm with tons of attitude, and when the electric guitar drops its hook in, it’s like a tense chase scene through a crowded Mexican villa. The lyrics speak of a mythical but dangerous place – a city where dreams apparently come true but perhaps they’re the illicit kind of dreams because there’s a high price to be paid if you get caught by the presumably corrupt authorities. When Gaby’s Spanish lyrics show up, it’s almost like she’s a soothsayer warning of great danger, and yet the actual lyrics seem to be about trying to reawaken a place lost deep in the crevasses of her memory. Intriguing stuff.
9. Woodshed Waltz
I usually notice and appreciate when a band deviates from the expected 4/4 time signature, even though 3/4 and 6/8 obviously aren’t uncommon. I tend to like triple meter, for whatever reason. Here, I really don’t. It’s probably because the band is emphasizing every second and third beat, so it’s got that “oom-PAH-PAH” feel like circus music, and the jaunty piano doesn’t help. It’s a really odd fit for a song that seems to be about a man’s paranoia, constantly burying his secrets and going to all this trouble to cover his tracks even though nobody’s actually out there looking for him. It’s almost like the constant, meticulous hiding is a sad ploy for attention. This would be the perfect excuse for a slower, sparser, more melancholy approach, and Calexico is no stranger for such things, so I’m not sure why they went with hokey, old-timey bar music for this one.
10. Moon Never Rises
I tend to view this song as the shy little sister of “Beneath the City of Dreams”. It’s got a similar beat to it that accents the downstroke, and Mexican indie pop singer Carla Morrison lends a touch of Spanish lyrics to it much like Gaby Moreno did on “Beneath”, but it’s got a slower pace to it and the mood is much more haunting, especially with the eerie keyboard effects that echo her vocal melody. The image of a completely black night with no moon or stars certainly fits the state of mind of a man and a woman whose lovers (possibly each other) have left them, and I love the vocal trade-off between Joey and Carla, and how they come together on the chorus. The sad, but kinda jazzy trumpet echoing off into the dark void is the perfect way to close out the song.
11. World Undone
Man, I am so frustrated with this one. There may be no better example of wasted guest talent on the entire album. When touring in Greece, Calexico met a local folk band called Takim and invited them to participate in their studio sessions. The result that made the cut was this brooding jam session that turns out to be all sizzle and no steak. It starts off on exactly the wrong foot as Joey is whispering the lyrics so softly, you can barely hear them. He and the rest of the band slowly come into focus as the Greek instrumentation ruminates on basically the same two chords for the duration of the song, with the music growing steadily louder, building up steam as it appears to be heading toward some sort of climax… and then it just sort of fades away again, like a passing storm that turned out not to be much of a threat after all. There’s a very simple repeating melodic motif here, but it’s never really expanded on, so the song feels like one long verse leading to a chorus that never comes. I’m all for breaking from the expected song structure… but man, you guys gotta change it up somewhere. Exotic instrumentation is what draws me to a lot of Calexico’s work, so I’m really disappointed that they had so much talent all in one room and they basically squandered it.
12. Follow the River
The mood’s been rather gloomy for the last several tracks, so the band seeks to give us a bit of relief by way of this steadily flowing and rather relaxing folk song, which does a pretty good job with its steadily strumming acoustic guitar and its restrained use of the piano and horn section. Joey, backed by Nick Urata (lead singer of DeVotchKa, a band that also knows a thing or two about working Latin and Eastern European influences into their music… and seriously, where have those guys been for the last four years?), delivers a soothing vocal melody that gives us a glimmer of hope to think that maybe someday, this lonely man will be reunited with the woman he lost. It’s not the record’s most attention-grabbing song, but it’s clearly a stronger finale than “The Vanishing Mind” or “Contention City”.
The deluxe edition of Edge of the Sun has a whopping six bonus tracks, three of which I definitely think are worth hearing: “Calavera”, which continues the trend of ominous and yet engagingly upbeat Latin rock, “Roll Tango”, an off-the-wall collaboration with the eccentric Eric Burdon that seems to make much better use of the Greek musicians from “World Undone”, and “Esperanza”, a sweet but sad Spanish-language song of (presumably) romantic longing from trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela, which I adore for much the same reason as “No Te Vayas” from their last album. Of the remaining three tracks, “Rosco y Pancetta” is a brief mariachi instrumental that could almost be the theme song to some south-of-the-border cartoon show, “Volviendo” is a rather bizarre mix of laid-back Latin jazz instrumental and Spanish spoken word that unfortunately feels like an excerpt from a book on tape, and “Let It Slip Away” is a bit of a forgettable Joey Burns ballad about screwing up and losing someone you love. I’d say the three best songs of the bunch make the deluxe edition worthwhile; this album could well have merited an “A” grade if those had been shuffled into the main track listing in place of some of the weaker material.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Falling From the Sky $1
Bullets and Rocks $.75
When the Angels Played $.50
Tapping on the Line $1.75
Cumbia de Donde $2
Miles From the Sea $.75
Beneath the City of Dreams $1.75
Woodshed Waltz $.50
Moon Never Rises $1.50
World Undone $.25
Follow the River $1
Joey Burns: Lead vocals, guitars, bass, cello, piano, keyboards, accordion, percussion, vibraphone
John Convertino: drums, percussion, piano, keyboards, vibraphone, marimba, accordion
Paul Niehaus: Guitars
Jacob Valenzuela: Trumpet, keyboards, vibraphone, vocals
Martin Wenk: Trumpet, guitar, keyboards, accordion, glockenspiel, vibraphone, theremin, harmonica, French horn
Volker Zander: Electric & upright bass
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