Joey Burns and John Convertino are definitely in it for the long haul. This is album number nine for the band that Wikipedia refers to as 'desert noir' and although the Calexico trademarks are all still very much in place, 2018 sees the Arizona refuseniks adding a little grit ‘n’ aggression to the mariachi. There’s other stuff too…
The Thread That Keeps Us starts off strongly. Neatly wrongfooting the listener with what sounds like a few bars of Eighties U2, ‘End of the World’ settles down into a tight little rocker. Not even some neatly unhinged guitar abuse can derail the tune. Somewhere, in a parallel universe, this is a huge hit, but sadly not in ours. Things are progressing nicely until ‘Spinball’ leads us off into a vaguely atmospheric direction à la Daniel Lanois, only to go hurtling off into the left field with ‘Under the Wheels’ – a kind of pop-reggae hybrid punctuated by some brass flourishes. It made me think of Maroon Five, which is a little disturbing to say the least. Just when you’re considering sending a sternly worded “cease and desist” letter to the band, along comes ‘The Town Miss Lorraine’. Imagine ‘Spanish Harlem’ given a spitshine and you’re on the right track. It’s a lovely way to spend two minutes and forty seconds.
The 2018 version of Calexico still has the Mexican influence which gives the band it’s USP, but on The Thread That Keeps Us, it seems to have been rather compartmentalised. Only ‘Flores y Tamales’ dips significantly south of the border, which is kind of shame. The album is full of strong, well-written tunes, but ever-so-slightly lacking in a real personality. It does also lurch from style to style without much warning – be prepared, dear listener, to go from alt-rock to folky waltzes (‘Unconditional Waltz’) to spy movie soundtracks (‘Shortboard’) at the drop of a hat. This album has been bought to you by the letter 'E' for 'Eclectic'. Sometimes it works, sometimes you’ll be reaching for the fast-forward button whilst scratching your head. You won’t ever be bored though. The tracks that work the best are the ones which stretch out a little – ‘Thrown to the Wild’ may stroll along at a leisurely pace, but a neat arrangement and some intelligent instrumentation means it never outstays its welcome. Live, this one could be a real showstopper. The album finishes with ‘Music Box’ which is one of a very rare breed – a song you wished was longer.
The Thread That Keeps Us sounds like a transitional record. After 23 years of plugging away, essentially as a duo surrounded by hired hands, Burns and Convertino may be on the cusp of something else. With a settled band and a more indie-rock direction, maybe more doors will open for them. With their fellow travellers like Fleet Foxes and Blitzen Trapper overhauling their sound significantly, maybe the time is right to shake it up a little. This album is certainly more direct than some of their previous offerings, but one could argue that the ingredients that make Calexico sound like Calexico are slightly diminished here. An accusatory finger or two could be pointed at the Farfisa organ driven funk of ‘Another Space’ which, although it’s pleasant enough, is a worthy but unwise excursion into unfriendly territory.
On The Thread That Keeps Us, Calexico have splurged. They’ve flexed their muscles and had a go at everything, with the possible exception of speed metal. Some of it has worked, but not all of it. Hopefully, the next album will hone down their sound and focus it like a laser beam.
6Ian Rushbury's Score