On their sixth album, Calexico finally sound more like a band with memorable, individual songs, than a project dedicated to creating audio soundscapes evocative of the American southwest. There's still a discernible whiff of hickory smoke about these songs, and the distinctive arms of saguaro cactus still stand out against the aural horizon, but there's something extra going on here.
It may be the result of Joey Burns and John Convertino working outside of their comfort zone. They had originally wanted to record in Europe, but never got it together, and settled instead on the most "European" city in America, New Orleans, naming the album after the district in which the studio was situated. The city's influence seeps unbidden into the songs, particularly the rhythms: in "Splitter", the Bo Diddley guitar is set off by the descending piano motif in a way that doesn't really happen anywhere else; and the usual Calexico mood-tableau is elegantly adapted to a New Orleans second-line shuffle groove on "Sinner In The Sea", in which guitar, horns, organ and pedal steel combine in a syncopated manner that's part Mardi Gras, part tango.
Similarly suspended between Latin and Western modes is "Para", while "Algiers" itself again allies the duo's dusty desert twang to a more humid Crescent City shuffle; their borderline roots are more directly exposed on the norteño ballad "No Te Vayas", with its proud mariachi horns, and in the twangy cuatro guitar of "Puerto".
Burns' voice imposes its own character on the songs – a haunting blend of mystery and trepidation tempered with longing, in tracks such as "Epic" and "Splitter", whose protagonist, "pushed by the wind, fed by the need for moving on", feels the characteristic tug of the road. It's probably the same character who in "Maybe On Monday", haunted by a vision of his beloved in a nighttime vigil, writes a song for her and carries it with him "till I lay down by your side", its presence a constant pricking of emotion for a soulmate who may be dead, or simply left behind.
Download: Epic; Splitter; Sinner In The Sea; Maybe On Monday