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Calexico - Algiers

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Artist: Calexico

Album: Algiers

Label: Anti-

Review date: Sep. 28, 2012

There’s a video for “Splitter” shot at the converted church near New Orleans where Calexico made Algiers. Joey Burns stands in front of an open doorway, the Crescent City Connection bridge just visible over his shoulder as he starts the song. He twitches out a one-note riff on his guitar, crooning in a spectral, cool tenor that has always seemed at odds with Calexico’s sweaty aesthetic. (It’s like water in the desert.) In a little while, the lens widens, and you see John Convertino, seated, pounding out a hard, staccato beat, all insistence and propulsion against Burns’s hallucinatory longing.

For the record, Calexico adds to the song’s foundation with keyboards, horns, multiple vocals, the multi-ethnic overload that has become one of the band’s calling cards. Yet in a way, this spare live take encapsulates everything that’s compelling about Calexico — the dialogue between tense rhythm and florid, dream-like yearning, the exceptional musicianship delivered casually, almost under the counter, and the sense of the mythic coming out of the most prosaic settings and character studies.

Algiers is one of Calexico’s best albums, certainly its finest since 2003’s Feast of Wire. It augments the core duo of Burns and Convertino with the usual suspects — Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet and various other instruments, Volker Zander on electric and acoustic bass, Martin Wenk on trumpet, keyboards, accordion and a surprising amount of theremin. There are, as always, some Spanish-language cameos. Jairo Zavala, a Spanish guitarist who records as DePedro, sings a lush and romantic “No Te Vayas.” (The trumpet solo at the end of “No Te Vayas” is, quite possibly, the most beautiful sound on the whole album.)

Yet, what Algiers does — and what, to my ears, recent albums including The Garden Ruin and Carried to Dust have not — is focus. Even the songs that are packed with sensation, the genuinely epic “Sinner in the Sea” for instance, weave their embellishments into the mix. There are intricacies here, in the slow swells of horns, in the nostalgic trills of piano, in the hip-shifting syncopation of rhythms, but it’s all subsumed in the song. Nothing feels tacked on or extraneous.

Lyrically, Algiers tends towards the same 99-percenter themes as ever — justice, economic inequality, immigration and political exile. “Sinners in the Sea” imagines a piano sunk in the ocean halfway between Havana and New Orleans, a metaphor perhaps for the way music flourishes equally amid political repression (Cuba) and political neglect (New Orleans). (By the way, Calexico wisely demurs from sampling New Orleans’s musical tradition in any overt way; there are no funeral marches or Dixieland jams on Algiers).

There’s also a strong thread of personal rumination in Algiers. “Para” pairs one of the album’s prettiest, most sweeping melodies with words that are largely about relationships. There is no lessening in passion or dramatic tension, either. It feels just as important as “Splitter,” a song that more broadly deals with the downtrodden.

Algiers is, like all Calexico records, beautifully played and arranged. It is full of unusual clarity and purpose and seems to have benefited from a certain amount of restraint. In fact, it feels like Burns and Convertino reached back toward something essential and spare, the kind of music that they could make, just the two of them, in a converted church without a dozen back-up players. It’s less an experiment in other people’s influences and talents and more a mastery of their own, and, as a result, the best Calexico album in years.

By Jennifer Kelly

Other Reviews of Calexico

Feast of Wire

Convict Pool

Carried to Dust

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View all articles by Jennifer Kelly

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