After playing together for more than 20 years, it’s understandable that Joey Burns and John Covertino—who together form the nucleus of Calexico—felt creatively restless and compelled to tinker with their trademark sound for their seventh album, Algiers. And while there are some fine moments on the recording, one is often left wishing that the duo had chosen to delve deeper into the acoustic soundscapes that they excel at rather than exploring the edges of confessional pop music as they do here.
Algiers gets off to a very promising start with “Epic,” an expansive, cinematic track that recalls the classic Calexico sound. With sweeping acoustic guitars anchoring funky riffs from a wailing electric, it is a breathless, soaring track that plays to all of the band’s strengths. Unfortunately, the momentum created by “Epic” doesn’t build, as the pop sensibilities Burns and Covertino have chosen to work with simply aren’t very interesting when compared to the daring music they’ve recorded in the past. Songs like “Fortune Teller” and “Better and Better” come off sounding trite and mushy despite the skill, careful instrumentation and heartfelt vocals that went into their creation. Somehow, the sentiments in the songs don’t ring true and often sound as if they were targeted squarely at the middle of the road. Even if one grants that they would sound fine on mainstream country radio, many of the new songs don’t really cut it for a Calexico album.
To be fair, there are some wonderful moments when the more poppy approach works beautifully. “Para,” with its lush strings, fantastic harmonies and its Beatles-esque arrangements is a highlight, as is the simple “Hush,” a simple acoustic love song that recalls the intimacy of Springsteen’s “Nebraska” as well as Calexico’s collaborations with Iron & Wine. The band’s older fans will probably find a lot to enjoy in the percussion-driven title track and the layered, ambitious “Solstice of a Vanishing Mind” that closes the album. With their complex arrangements and pristine instrumentation that features violins, mariachi horns and cascading background vocals, they are more typical of Calexico’s traditional approach to recording a song and stand out in contrast to the lighter numbers that dominate Algiers.
Time will tell if the new pop sensibilities of Algiers stick and begin to define a new era in Calexico’s music, or if it will be remembered as an experiment in song-craft that will be abandoned as the band’s members continue to restlessly explore new vistas of sound.