They call New Orleans a melting pot. When one thinks about it like that, it’s hardly surprising that this is where CALEXICO reconvened to record their seventh full-length album, ALGIERS. Joey Burns and John Convertino have long called upon an extended range of musical influences, blending them together so distinctly that the results have almost become a genre of their own. Nonetheless, the choice of New Orleans may still come as a surprise to many. CALEXICO are, after all, associated with a style that their name – borrowed from a small town of less than 40,000 inhabitants on the border between the US and Mexico – has always defined with an unusual precision. Their work has spoken of dusty deserts and the loners that inhabit them, mixing America’s country music heritage with that of a Latin persuasion. In other words, it isn’t obviously affiliated with the sounds that have made New Orleans one of the premiere tourist destinations in the US. What’s emerged as a result of this decision, however, is arguably the most exciting and accessible record CALEXICO have made. It’s a fact emphasised by the band’s decision to name the album in tribute to the neighbourhood where they worked: Algiers.
“When I say New Orleans, you think.... ’what?’” Burns elaborates. “Preservation Hall Band, Wynton Marsalis, Treme, Satchmo, Dr John, The Funky Butt, The Meters, Fats Domino, Boswell Sisters, Quintron, Trombone Shorty, Galactic, Harry Connick Jr, Brad Pitt, Daniel Lanois. And so do I. But when you are there, on Algiers Point or on the river or standing outside the chain link fence at Congo Square, you go back across the water to Haiti, Cuba, Africa. Some strange circles down there resurface.”
The feel of ALGIERS is recognisably classic CALEXICO, but their style been revitalised and reborn by the experience of recording in the city. Its influence isn't necessarily sonically evident, but there’s a strange, powerful connection to the sounds that have always coloured their own, influences Burns has previously identified as including “Portugese fado, 50’s jazz, gypsy or romani music and its offshoots, 60’s surf and twang from Link Wray to country’s Duane Eddy, the spaghetti western epics of Ennio Morricone and dark indie rock singer songwriters.”
You can hear ample proof of this in the dozen songs that make up ALGIERS. ‘Epic’, the magical opening track, swoons with an unexpected, easy-going romance and boasts a strangely calming, emotive chorus, and ‘Para’ – which Burns admits nearly didn’t make the record as “it felt too confessional” – is dark and brooding. ‘Hush’, featuring Paul Niehaus on both his trademark pedal steel and Moog synth, meanwhile finds Burns at his most sensitive, echoes in his delivery of Bruce Springsteen at his most melancholic, a comparison one might also draw, for other reasons, when confronted by ‘Splitter’’s uplifting rumble. Then there’s ‘No Te Vayas’, a collaboration between long- term CALEXICO member Jacob Valenzuela and Jairo Zavala of Depedro, and the trumpet-embellished drama of ‘Sinner In The Sea’, which reflects Burns’ desire “to map out a song that embraced our west coast roots to our experience working in Havana with Amparo Sanchez a few years ago” and which he flippantly describes as, “LA Woman heads to the Florida Keys and drives across the water to Cuba”. One can’t ignore the majestic closer, ‘The Vanishing Mind’, either, arguably as powerful as anything they’ve ever written. New Orleans, it seems, agrees witb CALEXICO.
“I’ve always loved New Orleans,” confirms John Convertino, who first met Joey Burns in 1990 when they began playing together in Giant Sand with Howe Gelb. “I knew that just by being in that place, with all that history that is so rooted in music, things would be different. You can't help but pick up the vibe. The air itself moves you in a way that is very different from anywhere else.”
Of course, it’s not the first time CALEXICO have worked away from their hometown base of Tucson, Arizona (and the city’s Wavelab Studios) since they first started recording under the name in 1996. Garden Ruin