Joey Burns and John Convertino, the main players in Calexico, have (with plenty of help) put together an impressive and remarkably consistent discography. While they have a clear sound — coated in dust, rooted in tehano, Americana, folk, etc. — their consistent quality has presented itself in a variety of different sounds.
Their new record, Algiers, both builds on its predecessor, Carried to Dust, and also kind of forgets about it. Carried to Dust, in a subtler way than Calexico’s best album — 2003’s Feast of Wire — jumped from texture to texture, from genre to genre, each song like one island in a long archipelago. Algiers hearkens back, instead, to the more concise and straightforward 2006 album, Garden Ruin. That album was their “rock” record, but Algiers is a bit softer than that record. Opener “Epic” puts the band’s best foot forward, with haunting vocal harmonies and clanging pianos making beautiful layers over the cutting guitar fills that cut into the track’s veneer. “Splitter” is full with horns, but succeeds on a lean, dusty chug. Later on the first half of the record, the more spacious balladry of “Para” takes these same elements and stretches them into something more melancholy and shadowy.
When Joey Burns — who commands the record’s first half with his breathy, sweet voice — insists on “tak[ing] it all the way down” on “Para,” we feel the heartworn emotions running all over the first half. Here the song feels rundown but not out of gas, still pressing on into the lively instrumental title track, where their Latin influences are their most prevalent. To this point in Algiers, we have boilerplate Calexico, which is to say something pretty damn solid. The songs are tight but fleshed out when needed, and though the songs hover at mid-tempo, they never feel dulled at the edges. And Burns’s voice conveys the sweet ache of traveling long paths these songs travel when he hits lines like “making it halfway across the gulf” on “Sinners in the Sea.”
Algiers is nothing if not consistent, keeping the same lean mid-tempo throughout, and as we ease into the second half, the sameness starts to wear the songs down. “Maybe on Monday” is too stripped down, a bit too much space for Burns’s voice to whisper to his love, so when he sings “Woke up on Monday, wrote you a love song,” it feels a little too dramatic, too self-referential, especially when “the paper flew out the window.” Elsewhere “Better and Better” is too quiet, too reliant on soft, nylon-stringed guitars that can’t inject life into the unassuming tune. “Hush” is a fine enough folk shuffle, but it gets weighed down by the too-similar songs that came before it. It isn’t until the shimmering, more ambitious layers of closer “The Vanishing Mind” that Algiers gets its smoldering energy back.
That’s not to say that the album falls off, but more that it starts strong and then tapers off into something more solid than striking. If there’s one intangible that works in Algiers‘ favor, though, it’s that the band recorded the album in New Orleans, and the band’s usual dustiness does shift into something a bit swampier here, a bit more stomping in its best moments. It’s hard to pinpoint how this change in tone occurs on the album, but it works in Calexico’s favor. Algiers is a good record, and though perhaps it could have been great, it’s still another fine turn in the winding, ever-shifting road of the Calexico canon.