The Thread That Keeps Us (Spunk)
Living on the southern border of the USA, Tuscon’s Calexico have always drawn from multiple sources, multiple cultures and different ideas of what an “American” sound and indeed what “America” might be.
A lot of the time that has meant music which has reflected the Arizona sky and desert’s openness – even when drawing on musicians from various corners of the world - and captured in songs the way that setting can make the epic feel intimate. Along the way reflecting the mixed messages of cross-border interactions that go back a couple of centuries.
The Thread That Keeps Us, both by name and, especially, by sound goes some way to capture the current emotional/political atmosphere both at the border and in the wider national discussion.
This is a harder, darker, more aggressive record that doesn’t shed the sun-drenched tones which Joey Burns and John Convertino have made their own, but positions it within a more complex debate.
Before going further down that road though, know that the past hasn’t been jettisoned. So a grittier Under The Wheels, for example, with its mix of Caribbean, Mexican and urban American elements, pitches some darkness lyrically and some uncertainty vocally, even as the music feels all forward momentum.
Then The Town & Miss Lorraine, which gently hovers between Glen Campbell and Dion, Flores y Tamales, positioned well into Mexico, and Girl In The Forest make room for better prospects and clearer night skies.
However, the tracks which are in the end halfway houses musically/tonally give you a sense of the most lasting effect of this album. The almost robo-rhythm pushiness of Another Space (brass playing off against a funky bassline), the Ry Cooder-esque space-engulfing interlude of Spinball, and the guitar’s spinning wheel edginess in Eyes Wide Awake, would on another Calexico album be dark-hued enough; here they are preparatory works.
The heavy rhythm tread, sneering guitar and muttered vocals of Dead In The Water, the quite PJ Harvey-esque rocking blues of Bridge To Nowhere, and the smoked water of Voices In The Field, which circles its intentions repeatedly, capture a kind of resistance to certain race-baiting political voices emanating from further east in the country.
“We’re coming up for air, we’re coming up, even though they say it won’t change a thing,” Burns sings in Bridge To Nowhere.
Even the more Tom Petty-like pop of End Of The World With You, a quite buoyant opening to the record, squawls in its guitar and agitates in a manner that says, we’re not the same as “him”.
Made in California, drawn from Arizona, touched by decades of map/social lines blurred by use and history, The Thread That Keeps Us finds Calexico making a most America-in-2018 album.