Calexico – The Thread That Keeps Us
City Slang – 26 January 2018
Calexico is one of the most interesting bands of the 21st century, and a new release is always a cause for celebration. It only happens about every three to four years for the Arizona-based collective, led by guitarist/songwriter Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino.
Every song is an adventure on a Calexico’s new album “The Thread That Keeps Us.” You’ll find robust songwriting, finely crafted soundscapes, tight horn arrangements and sporadic explosions of layered chaos.
Lyrically, you’ll hear a distinct political message for these challenging times, perhaps more conspicuous than on previous Calexico albums. Founder Joey Burns noted, “Instead of writing straight-up protest songs, I want to tell stories.” Indeed, his characters are colourful and alive; however, if there’s an unwritten lyric on this album, it’s Trump.
Walls and Bridges
Calexico albums are extensive – and every song is a highlight. The upbeat/downbeat opener End of the World With You offers up the central theme of this release. The tune gallops along, with a stinging Wilco-like guitar solo between verses. The message – live life, enjoy the ride – even in difficult times:
“Love in the age of the extremes/there’s nothing better that I’d rather do
Then to scatter all the myths/and walk to the start or the end of the world with you.”
On the fuzz-filled Voices in the Field, Calexico horns explode into duelling guitar solos, while the lyrics express anguish.
“Running through fields of flowers and smoke/leaving behind all that we’ve built/the garden now ashes and the roof is caving in/a broken hourglass blood running thin.”
That slow ride down a dangerous road continues with Bridge to Nowhere, an apparent post-apocalyptic story.
“From the lookout tower, another fired flare/I wonder if there’s a light inside that heart
To escape the mess from every misstep/why build another bridge that leads nowhere…”
Under the Wheels is part spoken word, part hip-hop over a conjunto beat. The lyrics extend the album’s theme further:
“Under the wheels of the war machine always someone else’s scheme
Show me a sign when the world falls apart from the core to the seams the threads that we seek.”
Calexico albums generally include a couple of Spanish language songs – this year’s model is the wah-wah filled Flores and Tamales. In the song, Burns explores themes of love and pain among migrants. He tells the story in simple terms, with sweeping crescendos and wailing guitars. He writes:
“El trago mas amargo/te dejo sin consuelo/perdida y llorando/a este lado del desierto,” which roughly translates to “The bitterest drink/I leave you without comfort/lost and crying/on this side of the desert.”
The Town & Miss Lorraine is an Everly Brother inspired throwback of a song. It’s a delightful little string-laden ramble that even references Dylan – “she has a way of making everyone she meets feel lost and alone with no direction home.” Like much of the album, the song is dark … but so pretty to hear.
Another highlight, Dead in the Water, comes complete with distorted guitar and discordant lyrics. Burns explains it as “the antagonist to the story of the album-a kind of monster.” He writes: “Don’t try to look away or stop me in my path/I make the law and I decree a new kind of wrath.”
This is a complete album and includes three instrumental interludes that tie the songs together. “Going into making the album, the only thing I really knew for sure was that I wanted there to be moments that felt free and spontaneous-just these moments of no time, no lyrics, no agenda,” notes Burns.
The story closes with Music Box, a charming “love song for my kids,” notes Burns. The song shuffles along, with heartfelt lyrics that foretell resiliency. “When the world goes dark/I’ll always be close by/to hear your dreams unfold, hold you when you cry.” The song, like the album, a precious gift for difficult times.
Calexico 2018 UK live dates:
Mar 28 Bristol, UK @ Trinity Centre
Mar 29 London, UK @ O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire