Seasonal Shift (Spunk)
Given the long, the ugly, the dispiriting history of the form, it is not very “bah humbug” to declare that as a general rule, Christmas albums are the pits. The absolute pits.
Well, ok, a little bit bah humbug, but only because occasional things like Tracey Thorn’s Tinsel And Lights and, going back some decades, Ella Fitzgerald’s Wishes You A Swinging Christmas, exist to make a small dent in the fetid slurry of seasonal dreck.
That’s why even allowing for the fact Arizona’s roots/Americana-meets-Mexicana duo, Calexico, aren’t crass, have consistently leant into humanity, and – hallelujah! – are not doing the standard carols/hymns/standards, it doesn’t take away the surprise that Seasonal Shift isn’t the pits. That it is in fact pretty fine.
As you’d expect from Joey Burns and John Convertino, casually elegant cross-border songs – in the case of the Venezualan Mi Burrito Sabanero, a very loose definition of the border – slide into space beside each other and just breathe.
Heart Of Downtown blends Mexican brass, West African rhythms and New York guitars into an early evening quick shuffle, while Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War Is Over) plays as a slow, traditional shuffle with slight enhancements from the returning brass.
The fado of Tanta Tristeza, with Gisela Joao taking the lead, unfurls with the slightest suggestion of jazz, while Tom Petty’s Christmas All Over Again jumps up and bounces with joy, tempered only by the clear-eyed trumpet.
As you might not expect from a yule disc though, the mood is less deck the halls with boughs of holly, and more check the stalls for signs of worry. The seasonal shift here is a reflective rather than purely rejoicing mood, a song such as Glory’s Hope shimmering ambiguously with vibraphone, as if caught between hope and loss, which is probably the most apt way to end 2020 really.
So, while Mi Burrito Sabanero dances into the room with a drink in its hand, and Sonoran Snoball flings some electro tweaks, blowsy trumpet and quasi-toasting over a bouncy rhythm, in the sad corrido of their Hear The Bells, they say “Take this charm and dry your tears/Won’t you wear it to ease your mind”, and the strings bring temporary stiffening before the pedal steel trips your emotions.
No need to worry about the mood being dragged down though. The pleasures aren’t so muted and the album finishes with a collection of greetings from around the world over a reprise of Mi Burrito Sabanero that forces even the grumpiest critic to crack a smile.
A version of this review ran originally in The Sydney Morning Herald.