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Calexico – Algiers
Label: City Slang – SLANG50022
Format: CD, Vinyl, Download
Released: 07 Sep 2012
Genre: Alt Rock, Americana
Living and growing up in what effectively is border country, Tucson, Arizona in this case, must expose you to more than just your “native” music, where native in the terms of the US and music is a bit of a loose term. Arizona borders Mexico and thus the gateway to Central and South America with Tucson being very close to that border. So you would expect that Joey Burns & John Convertino of Calexico would be very influenced by the sound of the South and you would be correct. The boys first started to play together in a band called, Giant Sand, though really just in a collaborative way which then carried through to their Calexico project having a revolving set of musicians helping out with their overall sound. This all began in earnest in 1997 with their debut “Spoke” and since then they have been very productive releasing nine albums with loads of live recordings, EP’s and singles in between. Though what is different about “Algiers” is where they chose to record it, normally they record at their own WaveLab studio in Tuscon but this time they decided to move a few states over and set up shop in New Orleans, this also gave them the name of the album, as Algiers is a suburb of New Orleans.
With all this talk of influence from the geographical location you’d expect me to start telling you all about “folky” and “Ethnic” nuances and stories of the desert and Spanish influenced wild west and that would be partly true as “Sinner In The Sea” has exactly that feel with the effected guitars, subtle brass backing, xylophone tinkles, its said that the boys are fans of Spaghetti Western music supremo Ennio Morricone and this track would not be out of place in any of those films. But this is not a theme that the album overdoes as with the next track “Fortune Teller” we get a more American rootsy track in the style of Ryan Adams with strummed guitar alongside a picked one, a harmonica and some vocal harmonies, a light and floaty track with oodles of atmosphere and I think thats the overall theme of the album. Think again of those Spaghetti Westerns and the beautiful ambiances, electrifying drama and spectacular scenery and you’d be very close to the feel this 12 song album conjures up.
The Title track “Algiers” is another atmospheric track, an instrumental tune and one that really declares the Morricone influence with its haunting guitar playing, slide guitar and accordion wallowing and floating, you’ll be reaching for a Panatela cigar, putting on your poncho, strapping on your holster and gun and heading out to right the worlds wrongs. But again we have a juxtaposition with the next track “Maybe On Monday” we are back in Americana/Rootsy territory and those vocal harmonies are back. And so this is how the whole album plays out, Spanish inflected tracks mixed with Americana styled ones, lots of Brass, Trumpets on the whole, as to be expected and a range of instruments that add a tonal voyage as well as an visual one of living in a frontier town. Just listening to “No Te Vayas” and you’ll be laying back on a chair on the porch, cigar bellowing from your pulled down sombrero, feet on a banister, with hand on gun, just in case, all sung in Spanish of course. The great thing though is its not an “ethnic” album, this still has all the modern song making tricks but those Spanish influences and tones lift the album, for me, way above the ordinary Alt-Rock/Americana effort.
As you’ve probably guessed this a beautifully realised sound from the boys with only the feeling, where does New Orleans come in? I think its subtly there with use of accordion and other incidental instruments but its starts to really appear with tracks like “splitter” and lyrics like “moving on, holding on” as if making a positive statement about the people of New Orleans after Katrina, but this post Katrina rhetoric isn’t apparent on initial listens because of the definite Arizona styled music, but once the lyrics penetrate you’ll suddenly hear the Katrina influence and no more than on “Sinner In The Sea” with the opening lines “There’s a piano playing on the ocean floor between Havana and New Orleans, drummin’ a requiem for the dead and the souls hanging on every poet’s prayer, running to the rock, running to the sea, prayin’ to the Lord, please shelter me”. This underlining lyrical gravitas in relation to a post Katrina, New Orleans makes the tone even more enveloping, subtle, beautiful and haunting, add to this having the album float from American music to Spanish throughout makes it a very interesting listen as well, neither style dominates they come together like I imagine the two cultures of Southern US and Mexico have in Tucson, they mingle like a forbidden cross culture romance, the love and care put into the two styles outweighing the differences. With the variety of sounds and heartfelt lyrics of loss, rebuilding a broken city, the power of the sea, Algiers elevates itself above the conventional, taking you on a sound voyage of Arizona and New Orleans and wrapping that in a very modern but wonderfully colourful poncho, is testament to these two amigo’s talents.
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I knew nothing of this artist before this arrived for review, just a vague feeling I had listened to something by him on Spotify once.