Calexico are often labelled – or even dismissed – as mere stylists. It’s easy to see why: across their six-album career, the band have toyed with country, rock, mariachi, indie, jazz and tejano. As a result, Calexico’s music can come across as an exercise in genre-fusion.
There’s an assumption that all this stylistic flirtation leaves little room for sincerity or passion. That sticking point was addressed by 2006’s Garden Ruin, a relatively conventional rock album that showcased the band’s song-writing skills ahead of their usual brassy flourishes.
Their last album, 2008’s Carried To Dust, seemed less self-conscious and found Calexico being comfortable with being Calexico again: it was a varied set, and perhaps their best yet.
Despite the four-year gap between the two releases, Algiers feels like the natural successor to Carried To Dust – a little less eclectic, a little more focused. It’s named in tribute to the part of the world in which it was recorded, although the Algiers in question isn’t the one in Algeria, but rather a neighbourhood in New Orleans.
As it turns out, neither location provides much of a clue as to the musical content of Algiers the album. There’s no detectable African influence but, to the untrained ear, neither does the brassy exuberance of New Orleans have much bearing on these 12 largely understated tracks; there’s certainly nothing as rip-roaring as 2000 single The Crystal Frontier. Calexico’s music continues to evoke Southwestern America in all its mythic glory: a land of hazy desert horizons, tatty cantinas and rolling tumbleweed.
Occasionally, the familiarity of Algiers can give the impression of a band that’s coasting. The title track – a sweetly sashaying instrumental – sounds rather like Calexico’s version of an Out-of-Office Automatic e-mail response. But that doesn’t make it any less beguiling.
And even when the song-writing on Algiers seems standard-issue, the instrumentation packs in enough exquisite little details to ensure that repeated listens are amply rewarded: the way, for example, Hush becomes gradually more echoey as it nears its end, as if the listener is receding from the performers; the eerily dislocated backing vocals in Fortune Teller, or the strange, cheap-sounding organ on the bridge of Sinner In The Sea. Better still, Algiers contains three of Calexico’s best songs to date – Puerto, Epic and Para, all of which show that they still have a flair for the dramatic.
If Algiers’ instrumentation and production feel pored-over, its lyrics certainly don’t. Their only noteworthy characteristic is a tendency towards physical, landscape-based metaphors – “There’s a sunken bridge between you and me”, “I don’t like this dark road any more” – that serve as a decent match for the music’s widescreen approach.
But one doesn’t go to Calexico’s music for poetry. Endlessly listenable and beautifully performed, Algiers is another fine entry into this dependably excellent band’s catalogue.