[xrr rating=4.0/5]Setting aside Circo, a tour-only CD that was initially available at the band’s live shows but has since been issued on vinyl, Algiers marks Calexico’s first proper album in four years, the longest the group has gone between albums since debut Spoke was released under a different band name on the German label Hausmusik in 1997. Good things come to those who wait, however: recorded in the New Orleans neighborhood that bears the album’s name, Algiers offers an outstanding crop of songs and shows Calexico again moving beyond the Latin/rock hybrid with which they are usually associated and further expanding its already broad sonic palette. This newest record at times even reaches the heights of what’s rightly considered Calexico’s two best efforts, 1998’s The Black Light and 2003’s Feast of Wire.

Algiers almost always finds the band playing to its well-honed strengths. Opening song “Epic” is classic Calexico, its initial mildly rumbling guitar and drums eventually building to a swell of electric guitar, wordless harmony vocals and horns. Few artists working today can match the core duo of Joy Burns and John Convertino when it comes to constructing songs; throughout the album the band crafts deeply-woven arrangements without them ever sounding oversaturated. Highlights are numerous, whether it’s in the interplay of piano and horns on “Splitter,” the Spanish-style guitar of “Puerto,” the warm strings that grace “Hush” or the gentle percussion and layers of strings of closing song “Solstice of a Vanishing Mind.” Other tracks are far sparser and equally effective. “Better and Better” is stripped down in a manner reminiscent of Garden Ruin, while “Fortune Teller” is nominally more adorned with brushes of percussion and also features one of the record’s loveliest melodies.

In interviews Burns has occasionally expressed reservations about his singing voice, but unarguably his vocals have become more assured with each new release. He lends equal amounts of tenderness and tragedy to the devotional ballad “Maybe on Monday,” preventing the track from devolving into excessive sentimentality, and easily moves in the opposite direction on the sinister “Para,” where his vocals are suitably mysterious and foreboding. Equally notable is the range exhibited on “Sinner in the Sea;” Burns sings in a low, brooding voice as the song begins, later practically shouting his lyrics over the song’s ominous instrumentation in a way that makes his distress absolutely unnerving. With its references to the Malecón Wall in Cuba – a favorite spot of that country’s poorer citizens, petty criminals and prostitutes – it shares similarities to the types of landscapes and characters that have populated their earlier songs.

Like earlier Calexico albums, Algiers is filled with images of distance, departure and lonely expanses, though the locations have shifted away from the Southwest and across the border to Louisiana and Cuba, among other places. If there’s a complaint to be made about the album is that sometimes these new found environments don’t feel as panoramic as before, and that its three-time losers don’t seem as vividly fleshed out. Burns and Convertino reportedly wrote many of these songs in the studio, perhaps that approach slightly dulled some of the songs. Yet these are minor flaws in an otherwise stellar album from two of indie’s most respected elder statesmen, and for Calexico fans Algiers will certainly be well worth the wait.

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