Calexico delivers immersive experience with ‘Algiers’
Album Review | 4 out of 5 stars
Published: Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 07:09
Some bands need high production values to be atmospheric. Whether it’s shoegaze with its penchant for excessive reverb or noise rock’s waves of distortion, many genres rely on the skills of engineers and producers to give their music its distinctive sheen.
This is not always the case, however. Some bands manage to evoke an ambience without all of the technical wizardry we so frequently encounter in studio albums. Calexico’s latest album, “Algiers,” is a striking example of straightforward songwriting and musicianship’s powerful influence in creating an immersive environment for the listener. Calexico manages to do more with nuanced guitar work, soft−spoken eclecticism and tasteful production than most bands could do with an army of well−trained engineers and a studio filled with high−end equipment.
The album opens up gradually, doling out increasingly evocative songs as it progresses. “Algiers” begins with “Epic,” a track that straddles the line between drama and modesty. Dreamy organs are quickly replaced by a driving acoustic guitar rhythm as singer Joey Burns delivers a simple, sparse melody that quickly grows as more vocal harmonies are added. While the track seems to hint at a dramatic climax from its earliest moments, the band wisely forestalls any single gratification, leaving the listener in anticipation as the next track begins.
The next track, “Splitter,” is more rhythmic and rocked−out than its predecessor, but the momentum that builds quickly dissipates as the band focuses its attention on generating more atmospheric sounds.
“Sinner in the Sea” opens with a suitably cinematic line: “There’s a piano playing on the ocean floor / Between Havana and New Orleans.” Pseudo−surf rock riffs play over creepy gothic organ sounds, while the drums add modest but effective commentary. Burns’ half−whispered vocals deliver a string of interesting images throughout the song, bringing the listener into a different sonic territory than was hinted at in the album’s first two tracks.
“Para” maintains this delicious spookiness. The transition between these two songs illustrates Calexico’s great ear for juxtaposition. The album is filled with interesting moments of overlap and contrast, thanks to the band’s well−honed sensibility for cohesiveness. They seem to know just when to change the dynamic of the album and when to preserve a mood from the previous track. While “Para” remains squarely within the climate it establishes in its earliest moments, the listener hardly wants a change. Rather than give us a shift in scenery, Burns and company are often more interested in thoroughly exploring a particular texture or theme than developing it through changing structures.
This is not to say that there aren’t songs that really move on “Algiers.” Tracks like “Puerto” mix Spanish guitar with robust rhythms and a carefully integrated mariachi horn section. Muttered Spanish vocals trade off with Burns’ English vocal hooks in a nice microcosm of the band’s ethnically eclectic sound.
Formed in Tucson, Ariz. Calexico sonically embodies the cultural diversity of the Southwest. The Mexican and Spanish influences on their sound are profound but never gimmicky. The band knows when to skirt the musical traditions they constantly hint toward without ever fully employing them. Eclecticism is the overriding motive, and it usually works beautifully.
“Algiers” concludes with “The Vanishing Mind,” featuring plaintive slide guitar skating over modest string arrangements and Burns’s terse melodies. As the strings and guitar lines rise and fall in sequences of teasing pseudo−climaxes, one can’t help but get into it. While Calexico never gives the listener any bombastically satisfying resolutions, its restrained, mature talent for musical suggestion and implication is what ultimately makes “Algiers” such a compelling record.