Calexico has always been quietly more ambitious than you might believe. Over the course of two decades, they’ve constantly pushed the borders of what Calexico can be beyond the Americana niche with which they’ve been associated. Sometimes that’s resulted in trading in their trademark horn section for a grab bag of guest musicians, as on the band’s last record, Edge of the Sun, which featured Neko Case, Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, and Ben Bidwell of Band Of Horses. However, for their ninth album, The Thread That Keeps Us (Anti- Records), the band contracts while simultaneously expanding.
Calexico’s core has always been Joey Burns and John Convertino, but since 2013 the rest of the band’s membership has been the same. Instead of that limiting the band, the album is arguably their most eclectic and ambitious to date. The Thread That Keeps Us takes advantage of the nurtured chemistry by limiting the outside guests to just contributions of some strings and pedal steel. The record’s sound swings from a classic Calexico infusion of Mexican music with Americana, but also journeys into loose-limed funk (“Another Space”) and jagged guitar workouts. Everything feels bigger and more cinematic than on past records, while even the quieter moments, like “Girl in a Forest,” seem like they should be soundtracking a relationship montage.
There’s also a relative straightforwardness to the album that extends from the performances to the songwriting, whose subject matter is split between relationships and the nature of the world, political or otherwise. The album was recorded during the recent L.A. fires, so some of that bled into the album’s subject matter too, the most obvious instance being the opening track, “End of the World with You.” There does seem to be the undertone of an intimate dystopian Western, which isn’t as ridiculous as that phrase appears to be. Whether that type of pendulum swing will work for everyone is debatable, as some songs have a “one and done” quality, while the rest of the record has sonic threads, no pun intended, that hold it together.
The Thread That Keeps Us is a conundrum. It’s a small album that feels big; it’s a transitional record that feels established; and it’s a continuation that seems like a new beginning. But it’s unquestionably a Calexico record, and that’s a good thing.