Calexico keeps seeking.
Calexico’s earliest work was at its best when it blended worlds of influences, mixing heavy layers of Southwestern styles with widespread punk, folk, or surf sounds. What could have been a novelty (“indie-rock with a mariachi band!”) never came close that line in the band’s distinctive examination of tones and cultures. Over the past few releases, Calexico has felt less indebted to its Tejano influences and while some idiosyncrasy has been sacrificed, the shift reveals the expansive approach that Joey Burns and John Convertino take, avoiding any potential pigeonholing. On new album The Thread That Keeps Us, the group mixes in growing set of influences while trying to find that titular object that can hold us together.
Mellow tracks dot the album, but urgency defines the disc. “End of the World with You” begins the show with an ostensible romance about “Love in the age of extremes”.” The singer’s concern with “cold wars” and a lack of trust point to something bigger than just abstract musings about the length or depth of a relationship. “Under the Wheels,” dancing its way into a touch of funk, shows lovers escaping a systemic devastation “Under the wheels/ Of the war machine.” Calexico doesn’t push policy positions, but they do respond to the uneasy state of the world. Even the peaceful closer “Music Box” offers its gift in response to the pressures the rest of the album deals with. It does so with the feel of a classic Calexico number, although the that idea could apply just as well to the Spanish “Flores y Tamales.”
“Music Box” walks the line between developing that old sound and feeling repetitive, and represents the challenge Calexico faces: veering too far from their trademark sounds could lead to an indistinctness, but sticking to the essentials just creates a retread. The group has enough skill to overcome that challenge. “Another Space” is emblematic of their sonic movements. It has a bit of post-punk groove, but it’s not unconnected to a fusion core. It kind of works. It doesn’t sound Calexico-esque, which makes it a fun break but also makes it an odd fit on an album with a folk number like “The Town & Miss Lorraine” or the ’90s alt-rock of “Dead in the Water.”
That exploration, whether effective or not, makes the album what it is. The group responds to tumultuous times not by writing protest songs, but by releasing a sonic energy and a divergent art. “Voices in the Field” shows a world falling apart; the burning here is representative without being strictly metaphorical. Crisis happens off-screen, and all our lives are on the line. The song’s an answer, but not a panic. Calexico knows enough to balance that sort of track with the Latin “Unconditional Waltz,” an instrumental deep breath. Any thread that keeps us will be elusive, but far-reaching. Calexico keeps seeking, and this latest album is a reminder of how far they’ll stretch.