Calexico | Seasonal Shift | (Anti-)
3 out of 5 stars
Remember back in the late 90s when Calexico’s combination of windswept Spaghetti Western and Mexican music on early albums like Black Light and Hot Rail was daring and adventurous? Those days seem a long way in the rear view mirror, especially on parts of the band’s new Christmas themed release.
The duo of Joey Burns and John Convertino has been gradually shifting to more commercial indie waters over the past two decades. They dive in on the opening of this enjoyable but at times far from edgy release. Push play and get an earful of orchestration on “Hear the Bells,” the disc’s first and most obvious single. It’s a sweeping, widescreen evocation of the season tempered by honeyed pedal steel, Mexicali trumpets and the occasional Spanish lyric all in service of what tries, mostly successfully, to be a big, bold, timeless statement on leaving the old behind with “Take a breath to soothe your sorrows/Until they’re gone…as the years fade away.”
Covers of Tom Petty’s obscure and chugging “Christmas All Over Again,” along with a dreamy reading of what is now John and Yoko’s clichéd “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” aren’t pushing any envelopes either, although both are pleasant inclusions. Burns and Convertino get assistance from instruments such as Portuguese guitar, vibes, mellotron and lots of percussion boosting the sound. Other vocalists like the lovely Gisela Joao, Gaby Moreno and Camilo Lara join to provide a refreshing vocal changeup.
Some moments such as Burns’ snoozy waltz time “Nature’s Domain” strip the vibe down but don’t represent anything musically or philosophically seasonal with the lyrics “Winter’s disguise has rendered me blind,” perhaps besides mentioning the season. The music takes an unusual but jaunty turn towards Africa as the Niger based Bombino guests for “Heart of Downtown.” It’s a delightful diversion especially as the Mexican brass makes for a more worldly mix, although again there isn’t anything Christmas about it. Burns’ lovely, high lonesome country folk “Peace of Mind” celebrates staying home, at least this year, in the disc’s sweetest and most genuine moment.
Things close on a frustrating note as a variety of people wish us happy holidays in different languages on “Mi Burrito Sabranero (Reprise), a frisky novelty you’ll listen to once then quickly skip over for future playings.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the scattershot musical smorgasbord, Calexico delivers a fitfully enjoyable album, one with enough artistically entertaining moments to make it worthwhile, even if its overall approach is more unfocused than festive.