Calexico – The Thread That Keeps Us (Anti-)

The band dubbed ‘desert noir’ is back pushing their sound into dark and alluring new territories on The Thread That Keeps Us.

While based in Tuscon Arizona the band’s recent recording efforts have been nomadic. From New Orleans (Algiers) to Mexico City (Edge of the Sun) and now the Northern Californian coast, in a studio built out of shipyard-salvaged lumber they dubbed ‘The Phantom Ship’.

Their expanding horizons seep into their music, almost jarringly so. This is no dinner-party background, it jumps from indie alt rock to full blown mariachi to synth-heavy funk.

Good on them, for a ninth studio effort main duo Joey Burns (guitars/vocals) and John Convertino (drums) could have easily traveled on cruise control. Though it might not hit the heights of Feast of Wire or Carried To Dust it’s still a compelling Calexico collection.

It starts with a cracker indie rock double bill of End of the World With You and Voices in the Field, the latter all hand claps and fuzzy guitar riffs.

The upbeat sound is contrasted by Burns’ deep lyrics. Never shying away from social commentary, Burns says Voices in the Field is inspired by “the poems on postcards from those uprooted by war and oppression.”

The album chills out over the moody and chaotic Spinball, one of three instrumental pauses including the beautiful melancholic horns of Unconditional Waltz.

Horns, especially the Mexican mariachi sound, is quintessential Calexico and is sadly underutilized here. They do add some punch to Under the Wheels, and shine on standout track Flores y Tamales.

It’s one of those infectious tunes you wish you were listening to in a tiny border-town bar. Featuring the Spanish vocals of Calexico’s Jairo Zavala, it tells the tale of a ghost trying to reconcile with his loved one.

The band’s South-West Americana roots weave their way in with the acoustic Girl in the Forest and the beautifully nostalgic The Town & Miss Lorraine, letting Burns’s sweet vocals shine.

Which are rudely interrupted by the jarring funky beats of Another Space. Nice to experiment but the repetitive “Another time / in another space” chorus did my head in.

There’s something to be said for a band that’s been around for over two decades not sounding tired or burnt out. If anything the album takes you on a sonic journey of their contemporaries over the years, with tracks reminiscence of R.E.M., Iron & Wine, Ryan Adams, Wilco and even Nick Cave on Dead in the Water.

The heartfelt closer Music Box is an absolute charmer. It’s one of those soft final numbers that sneak up and knock you down. Even though they’ve sampled some loud new threads it’s nice to hear subtle Calexico shine through.

Note the deluxe edition has an extra seven tracks, but stick to the 15-aside version, it’s a shorter and sharper affair.

Clayton Barnett