Christmas may not be quite the same this year but the timely return of the ever-reliable Calexico with an album of seasonal themed songs helps bring a sense of welcome familiarity to this year’s somewhat muted festivities. The Tucson duo of Joey Burns and John Convertino have proved themselves to be the basis of one of the most consistent bands of the last twenty years and listening to Seasonal Shift, it quickly becomes apparent that it very much deserves to be conidered equally alongside the rest of the Calexico discography and not seen as a novelty or one-off.
Opening track Hear The Bells manages to tick most Calexico boxes, being heartwarming, elegiac and uplifting. Pedal steel guitar, strings and customary brass all combine pleasingly and frontman Joey Burns switches between English and Spanish, and also reflecting moods that veer between the celebratory and the serious. It still manages to be one of the most overtly festive moments on the album but it’s not a theme that dominates the collection. Nuanced songcraft and classic Calexico leitmotifs are very much also in evidence, perhaps best demonstrated on the early pair of Mi Burrito Sabanero and Heart Of Downtown. The former has a Latin-flavoured vibrancy, led by the colourful vocals of Gaby Moreno while the latter is quintessential Calexico, showcasing their ongoing strength in constructing engaging, rewarding songs. It also features Bombino on guitar and could quite reasonably be seen as a distant cousin to Quattro (World Drifts In) from their acclaimed 2003 album Feast Of Wire.
Seasonal Shift includes two covers – an unburdened and brisk run through of Tom Petty’s Christmas All Over Again with the help of Nick Urata from DeVotchKa and a more prosaic version of Happy Xmas (War Is Over) by John Lennon & Yoko Ono. It’s hard not to think additional brass may have elevated it to a more distinct place, but in the end they settle for a relatively faithful rendition that above anything else perhaps shows the song to be very well suited to Burns’ voice.
The title track and Nature’s Domain are more low-key and contemplative, showing how Burns is still adept at injecting gravitas to songs where needed. The instrumental Glory’s Hope meanwhile evokes the sight of Christmas lights draped across the dustbowl, coming close to suggesting a landscape where cacti have been replaced by Christmas trees.
Gisela João brings an considered elegance to Tanta Tristeza and Camilo Lara stars on the energetic Sonoran Snoball which is a highlight of the later stages, electronically augmented with moments of bleepy and blocky lighthearted exuberance. Once over, it’s just left for the cast of contributors and beyond to send us their best wishes on the final reprise of Mi Burrito Sabanero. If the prospect of a COVID-impacted Christmas is proving too tough to contemplate then Seasonal Shift is well placed to offer moments of diverting relief.