Calexico – The Thread that Keeps Us: Love in the Age of the Extremes

2018_Calexico_TheThreadThatKeepsUs

Artist: Calexico
Album: The Thread that Keeps Us
Year: 2018
Grade: B+

In Brief: What this album lacks in special guests, it makes up for with its slightly more aggressive and exploratory sound. Calexico still balances their dusky desert folk, indie rock, Latin, and jazz influences pretty well, with this album coming out a little stronger on the “rock” side of the spectrum, but not alarmingly so. It’s a welcome change after the sleepier vibe of their last few records.


While I’ve been enjoying Calexico‘s music for almost a decade now, my complaint about the band tends to be the same on pretty much every record they put out. Their main selling point seems to be that they’re a cultural mish-mash between an impressionistic indie band with jazz and country leanings, and a festive Latin rock band. So why do they have so many songs that seem to slip through the cracks and not embrace a strong identity one way or another? From Carried to Dust (my first experience with the band back in 2009) up through 2015’s Edge of the Sun, I’ve had this complaint to varying degrees, and I’ve determined that at times their understated nature was meant to be intentional, and that they were making more of an effort to course-correct and diversify their sound to avoid falling into a rut. While 2012’s Algiers actually made a pretty strong case for a lot of its moodier numbers, the band really seemed to be hitting a creative stride with the multitude of guests from across the indie and Latin music worlds on Edge of the Sun. Still, it’s always been individual Calexico songs that have excited me more than their full albums. And I’m glad to report that with their 2018 release, The Thread that Keeps Us, the balance may finally have tipped in favor of the album as a whole being a satisfying listen, and they really didn’t have to change all that much to accomplish this.

The first thing you’re likely to notice when you pop this sucker in is that the electric guitars have gotten a lot noisier. We’re not talking like heavy metal or super-experimental noise, but I am genuinely surprised at the feistiness of a few of these songs, considering how I’ve generally regarded Calexico as more of a band that works with subtle hues and allows their hooks to sink in slowly. This rockier approach only really jumps out at me on a few tracks, but even when they settle back into their more typical sound, they manage to maintain more of an up-tempo energy level that keeps the project from feeling like it drags on interminably – which is no small feat considering that there are 15 tracks here. The album is structured much like Carried to Dust in that regard, with the occasional instrumental sketch serving as an interlude between some of the more musically intense or emotionally heavy songs. It’s just a lot more satisfying to see this one all the way through to the end, when the last of the more aggressive material finally tapirs off and leaves us with a few genuinely haunting and beautiful ballads. There might be one or two tracks where the overall vibe and the instrumental choices that they make don’t really do much for me – but that’s a far better track record than they had on all three of their previous records, so I really can’t complain. (It’s worth noting that, unlike on Edge of the Sun, they didn’t shunt some of the album’s most intriguing material off to the bonus edition. That’s a matter of personal opinion, of course, but I don’t hear anything on the 7 bonus tracks this time around where I’m bummed that it got left off of the standard edition. Taking in all 22 at once admittedly gets a bit tiring, so this time around I’m just going to stick to the standard edition and leave the extras for the truly hardcore fans.)

If there’s one drawback to the bolder sound this time around, it’s that lead singer/songwriter Joey Burns seems to get lost in the mix occasionally. He’s got a voice that wavers between gentle and mysterious – it’s not a particularly loud or boisterous one, which means that he could sometimes use better support in the backing vocal department when a few of these songs are reaching the big rock hooks. I also feel like the more Latin aspects of the band’s music might be a little more downplayed this time than usual – Edge of the Sun had several tracks that emphasized the horn section and the Spanish vocals contributed by trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela, touring member Jairo Zavala, and several special guests, while on this album, there’s only one track in Spanish, and nobody outside of the band’s roster to provide additional vocal spice in either language. While I’d still love to hear a Spanglish blend like “Puerto” or “Victor Jara’s Hands” instead of the two languages being completely isolated from each other, I’m not as disappointed by the shift in focus to more of a rock sound as I would have been if they’d downplayed the Latin influences in favor of a more stripped-down sound. A few tracks manage to combine these aspects of Calexico’s sound believably, so I’m sure it was just a simple matter of going with the songs that felt the most right to them this time around, and not trying to shoehorn in anything that wasn’t ready for prime time.

Lyrically, Joey Burns has never really been a direct songwriter, even when his lyrics are politically motivated. The plight of misunderstood souls just trying to eke out a living in forgotten corners of the American desert, and specifically the way immigrants to this country are treated by others and struggle with their own sense of identity, have been themes in a lot of Calexico’s past work, and even though nothing on this record bluntly addresses the issues they’re probably especially fired up about in the Trump age, you can sort of feel that they’re on edge about it in the way a lot of these songs are performed. Civil and political unrest tends to light a fire under a lot of musicians, I guess. I like Calexico in this mode. Their songs are still more interested in being vivid little vignettes of life on both sides of the border than they are about being political stump speeches, but in their art, I hear a plea for understanding people before you cast judgment upon them. That’s a good place for an artist to be in what Calexico has dubbed “the age of the extremes”.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. End of the World with You
Now, for all I’ve said about the heavier direction taken on this album, I wouldn’t blame you if you heard the drums and power chords pounding away right from the opening second of this song, and you thought, “So what. They’re just dressing up their sound with more distortion and power chords. Oldest trick in the book.” That was my reaction at first, until the break between the chorus and second verse, when a rather jarring and dissonant guitar solo shows up. Tempted as you might have been to dismiss the band for making slightly louder background music,this is a moment that can’t be ignored. I don’t think we’re approaching Sonic Youth levels of weirdness here, but it’s pretty out there for Calexico, and it’s fitting for a song that tries to find the confidence to keep fighting off the darkness as the world around us goes to hell in a handbasket. I can only imagine that this one was written in the earliest days of the current administration, when our Tweeter-in-Chief was picking fights with the EPA and the National Park Service, quite possibly giving us the album’s most political lyric: “Turn up the microphone on the National Parks”.  There’s some stuff about cold wars, and scattering myths (presumably meaning shedding light on “fake news”), and even an offhand mention of artist James Turrell (who I just learned is in the process of building an observatory in a meteor crater in Calexico’s home state of Arizona), which I’m guessing is there more for reasons of “Let’s enjoy what beauty is left in the world” than for anything directly political. There’s a good balance between the beautiful and the visceral here – it’s a song that portends dark times, but that is determined to serve as a light source for as long as possible in spite of everything.
Grade: A-

2. Voices in the Field
The heavier rock and Latin influences mingle most convincingly on this song. The guitars are still a bit growly and moody, but the syncopated rhythm, accentuated by handclaps, sounds like it could be a distant cousin of a beat they picked up from a mariachi band. (The horns help with that little bit of characterization, too.) The lead guitar occasionally splits off into these weird, sort of dissonant tendrils of sound, like something I might have heard on Sufjan Stevens‘ Michigan album forever ago. It’s an intoxicating blend of sounds, is what I’m getting at. The lyrics describe a tragic separation of someone sort – a man’s house and garden suddenly go up in smoke around him, either killing him or forcing him to flee (the song seems to be from his perspective, so I’m not 100% sure), and the song seems to be what he wishes he could say to his family if only he had time to explain his departure. This song does a great job of building up tension on its way to the chorus, but there’s a call-and-response vocal in there that serves as an example of what I mentioned earlier about Joey’s voice getting buried. The hook is melodically strong, but the vocals don’t have quite enough force to really bring the lyrics to the forefront. It seems like it wants to be a big audience participation moment, but I’m not sure what to sing. Aside from that, this is a top-notch, downright riveting performance.
Grade: A-

3. Bridge to Nowhere
Drummer John Convertino has been killing it on these first few songs – I tend to think of him as more of a laid-back, jazz drummer type, but the more aggressive approach on these songs suits him pretty well. The stuttering of his forceful beat combined with the short bursts of muted, but militant guitar chords really makes an impression at the beginning of this song, which lyrically is about as bleak as they home. War seems to be consuming a city, leaving a desperate resident to wonder why his government spent so much effort building bridge and shelters and other such infrastructure if, when the time came to actually protect the people, they were going to just turn a blind eye. “My focus was blurred/As the world became consumed/For who?”, John cries in the chorus, more as a soft, last-ditch prayer for deliverance than as an angry protest. The song changes character midway through as the stuttering beat gets overtaken by a more relaxed one, which fits the bridge’s lyrics about oppressed and forgotten people “coming up for air”. But I have to say, I’m a little disappointed that as that bridge comes to a crescendo, the song just ends, rather than bringing back one final, pummeling chorus. What can I say, I really like these guys in super-bleak mode.
Grade: B+

4. Spinball
Little instrumental moments like these would appear to be the brainchild of Convertino – sometimes he seems to come up with these little drum riffs or bits of texture that set a mood without needing to be attached to any particular song. This one is mostly just rolling cymbals, sounding like they’re building up to a rhythm but never finding it, while the electric guitar looms like a gathering storm on the horizon. It isn’t terribly impressive on its own, but it forecasts a killer run of songs that will follow it.
Grade: C+

5. Under the Wheels
Awwwww YEAH! This one’s an instant classic. The drum programming that kicks it off meshes nicely with Convertino’s live drumming – throw in a jittery little guitar riff and you’ve got a nice bit of fusion that lands somewhere between Latin and ska. The horns are more prominent here, and they’re (as usual) more on the Latin side of that equation, and for a moment I think that this is gonna be a big party song like “Cumbia de Donde” on their previous album. Musically it’s just about as fun as that one, but lyrically it’s no picnic, describing an oppressed group of people as mere cogs in the machine of “the war regime”, possibly referring to some of the ongoing strife in parts of Latin America that uproots people from their homes, leading them to seek shelter in more stable societies like ours. Whatever social commentary is here has to be inferred, I think – it’s not telling you what to feel so much as just trying to get you to understand how someone in such a dire situation might feel. Joey makes the wise choice to use the more hushed and mysterious side of his voice in the verses, which have a cadence to them that almost resembles a spoken word piece, and then belting out a delicious minor key melody in the sad but strong chorus. The whole band is just on fire here. (Maybe that’s a bad choice of words, considering the subject matter of these last few songs, but you know what I mean.)
Grade: A+

6. The Town and Miss Lorraine
Here we finally downshift into more of a relaxed mood and tempo – the sort of thing that normally happens much sooner on a Calexico record. I’m ready for it. This one’s got a strong enough melodic motif, played gorgeously by a Spanish guitar and accented by strings and (I think?) glockenspiel, that I’m pretty much instantly captivated by it before the lyrics even get started. It gives me the mental picture of walking around a small seaside town – probably one of those old mission towns along the coast of California – and just taking in the sights on a lazy afternoon, wondering about the trials and tribulations of the people who lived there at more tumultuous times in history. Joey seems to tell two or perhaps three unrelated stories in the brief lyrics of this song – first finding an old log book in a sunken ship, then bringing up his neighbor, the titular Miss Lorraine, who is apparently a confrontational enough figure that she alienates everyone who visits, and then finally there’s a bit about an oil tanker crashing and burning on the Interstate. How these things are related, beyond being odd little vignettes of life in a small town, past and present, is beyond me. I don’t need to understand it to be completely swept away by this song, though.
Grade: A-

7. Flores y Tamales
This is the lone Spanish-language song on the record, so of course it’s going to grab my attention. (“Esperanza” was a definite highlight on Edge of the Sun‘s extended edition, and “No Te Vayas” from Algiers might just be my favorite Calexico song, hands down.) Usually these are penned and sung by either Jacob Valenzuela or Jairo Zavala – this time around I believe it’s Jairo singing the lead vocal, since he has a co-writing credit. I’m used to these entries being melancholy ballads, so I’m pleasantly surprised at how upbeat and festive this tune is – crisp and clear Spanish guitars strumming away, peppy little riffs from the horn section, plenty of deliciously metallic clanging sounds from Convertino befitting the South-of-the-border style. I’ve got just enough residual vocabulary in this language to get that the song is about dancing (and of course, flowers and tamales), and I’m not gonna cheat by looking up a translation. Maybe the dancing is to celebrate, maybe to chase away some sort of sorrows. Given what most of the album has been about so far, it’s almost certainly the latter. What I know for sure is that this track is just under three minutes of sheer joy. I never want it to end.
Grade: A

8. Another Space
I’m realizing that two themes which seem to crop up again on this record are: (1) escaping burning buildings, and (2) physical separation from a place one calls home. Those themes are alluded to once again in this track, which actually feels more like an extended vamp than a fully fleshed-out song. It’s quite an enjoyable vamp – I love the stuttering organs and the overall nervous atmosphere of it, and especially the fiery horn solo that shows up later on. But it’s essentially a one-chord jam all the way through, so don’t expect a lot of melodic variation here – Joey’s hurried refrain of “In another time, in another space, in another way we’ll get back to this place” is literally a one-note chorus. It feels more like a pre-chorus that should be leading into something that opens up the song a bit more, like what they did in “Under the Wheels”. So while this song has a similar groove to it, it falls a bit behind that one quality-wise due to feeling like it might have a bigger hook in there somewhere that it never actually gets to.
Grade: B+

9. Unconditional Waltz
This is my favorite of the three instrumental vignettes on this record. Befitting its title, its main instrument is an acoustic guitar, strummed and plucked in 3/4 time, accompanied by Jacob and Martin’s trumpets. It’s a pretty, peaceful, maybe slightly mournful moment that I wouldn’t have minded hearing get developed into a full-fledged song.
Grade: B+

10. Girl in the Forest
Calexico recorded this album somewhere in Northern California, I believe – and this is the song that most directly ties into Joey’s experience with that part of the state. It seems to have been inspired by a drive through the Sierras, and a moment taken to contemplate the natural beauty that could be threatened by the rolling back of environmental protections under the current administration. (John Muir gets name checked at one point.) This one’s got more of a 70s folk or soft rock feel to it, and I like the overall vibe of it, but to be honest, the melody is kind of boring. It’s also a short enough song that I feel like it arrives at its moral a bit too quickly and obviously: “Something’s got to change before everything’s/Gonna disappear right before our eyes/And we finally face ourselves alone in the forest/Where so much rides on which path we decide.” That’s a bit anvilicious, even though I agree with the overall message. I wanted to just take a deep breath, meditate in that woodsy atmosphere for a bit longer, and figure out the lessons learned for myself, y’know?
Grade: C+

11. Eyes Wide Awake
This is the second of two consecutive songs that I can’t say I care a whole lot about, so this is the most difficult section of the album for me to get through – though I should note that it’s less tedious for me than some of the lulls where my interest wanes on previous Calexico albums. This one’s actually quite heavy on the electric guitar for a slower Calexico song, and I like the heavy-hearted mood and slightly experimental texture of it, but once again I have to admit that I’m just not into the melody here. It seems to go back and forth between two chords without much in the way of variation or dynamic contrast. They do bring in the horns at the end, but the brooding rock atmosphere doesn’t blend all that well with the Latin influence, so it only ends up being a slight accent that doesn’t add much color to the song. I feel like this was meant to be an emotional climax for Joey, as he’s gone back once again to the imagery of a burning room and a few lost, forgotten souls eventually finding their way back to each other. I feel like the band has figured out how to start off a lot of these types of songs with genuine intrigue, but then they don’t quite have the follow-through to keep them engaging for their entire duration.
Grade: C

12. Dead in the Water
Just when we needed it most, this song comes along with its aggressive, palm-muted electric guitar riff to jolt us all awake. After “End of the World with You”, it’s the second most startling thing on the album. It’s a really different sound for Calexico, since the guitar style puts it somewhere between blues and surf, while the rhythm is so rigid and unrelenting that I can’t help but wonder if they were listening to some late 90s alt-metal. That’s not to say that Calexico went and recorded a metal song – by heavy rock standards, this is still pretty tame. But it’s downright menacing, especially with Joey singing the lyrics in a much lower register than normal. He’s pretty clearly taking on the point of view of a demagogue here, who will leave nothing but wanton destruction in his wake as he abuses his power in order to get whatever he wants: “I’m taking you and the whole world with me”. The opening lyrics suggest an undermining of whatever democracy was in place before: “Tired of being the good cop, I’m gonna do what I please/Don’t hand me any more allegations of misconduct or sanction me.” The most obvious reading of these lyrics is that they’re about Trump, but they could apply to local abuses of power as well – dirty cops who believe might makes right and that their own actions are above the law, that sort of thing. It’s a bone-chillingly good performance, and my only real complaint here is that it’s a bit too stiff to fully capture the demented glee that its central character seems to feel at being able to destroy an entire society seemingly with his bare hands.
Grade: B+

13. Shortboard
The title of this brief instrumental makes me think of surfing, though it’s more of a slower, meditative track, in which the primary instruments are the bass and… maybe a sitar? Some sort of an exotic stringed instrument (or maybe just a really weird guitar filter) to give it a mildly psychedelic feel. It doesn’t really develop much before fading away, and since there is a track on the extended edition called “Longboard” that is literally just the same thing but longer, I don’t get the impression that it would have developed into much of anything, either.
Grade: C

14. Thrown to the Wild
This sad, haunting song is definitely a late-album highlight. It brings Calexico’s jazz influences a little more into the foreground, since the lead instruments are piano, acoustic guitar, and stark percussion – it’s easy to imagine this being played after hours in a dimly-lit bar in some run-down town. If the narrative I’m starting to piece together is true, and this record is about the separation between family members who have chosen to free their war-torn countries and start over in America, and those they’ve left behind, then this one seems to be about one of the characters who left hitting rock bottom in America – sleeping in bus stations, having to fend off drug addicts, using what spare change they’ve managed to scrape together to travel to new towns looking for work, that sort of thing. And deeply missing the loved ones they had to leave behind. it’s tragic, and I’d describe the wordless melody that the backing vocals transition into near the end of the song as “ghostly”. It really sticks with me.
Grade: B+

15. Music Box
I honestly didn’t think much of the album’s final song until I had started to figure out what a lot of the preceding songs might be about. It’s usually the songs that are more straight-up folk/rock, that are more slow to mid-tempo, and don’t lean as heavily on the edgier rock or Latin influences, that take me the longest to appreciate on Calexico’s albums. I adore “Hush” from Algiers, for example, but it didn’t really make much of an impression on the first several listens. This one seems to be one of those – it’s a little more up-tempo than previous examples, and there’s a glimmer of both hope and heartache in Joey’s vocals as his character sends a letter and a keepsake to a loved one he may never see again. The chorus simply states, “I want you to know this song’s for you/I want you to know that I love you”, and I don’t think I’d have realized the power in that simple sentiment if I didn’t have some sense of the reason these people were separated. That gives it a heck of a lot more emotional weight, and the lyrical callback to the idea of being a ray of light as the stars themselves seem to get snuffed out one by one is a nice little callback to “End of the World with You”, that gives both songs a little extra meaning due to how they appear to be connected. If I’m honest, the fact that I recently saw the film Coco probably means I’m getting some residual feels whenever I think about the power that music has to trigger memories and keep people from forgetting loved ones who have passed on. This song sums that idea up pretty well, now that I think about it.
Grade: B+

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
End of the World with You $1.50
Voices in the Field $1.50
Bridge to Nowhere $1.25
Spinball $0
Under the Wheels $2
The Town and Miss Lorraine $1.50
Flores y Tamales $1.75
Another Space $1.25
Unconditional Waltz $.50
Girl in the Forest $.50
Eyes Wide Awake $.25
Dead in the Water $1.25
Shortboard $0
Thrown to the Wild $1.25
Music Box $1.25
TOTAL: $15.75

BAND MEMBERS:
Joey Burns: Lead vocals, guitar, bass, cello, piano, keyboards, accordion, percussion, vibraphone
John Convertino: Drums
Jacob Valenzuela: Trumpet, vocals
Martin Wenk: Trumpet, guitar, keyboards, accordion, glockenspiel, vibraphone, theremin, vocals
Scott Colberg: Upright & electric bass
Sergio Mendoza: Keyboards

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.casadecalexico.com/
https://www.facebook.com/calexico

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