Calexico’s Edge of the Sun is packed full of the kind of music that made me a longtime fan of the Tucson band. To me it’s one of Calexico’s more successful albums in quite a while. The songs have strong melodies – both on the catchy upbeat numbers and the more pensive ones – and deeply felt lyrics that lean frequently toward the melancholy, with glimmers here and there of hopefulness. In the time that I’ve been listening to this album, just about every one of its songs has at one time or another been my favorite.
At the core of Calexico are its founders, drummer John Convertino and guitarist, singer and chief songwriter Joey Burns. Other regular members include Nashville-based pedal steel guitarist Paul Niehaus, Tucson trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela and German multi-instrumentalist Martin Venk. And in the past few years Tucson keyboardist Sergio Mendoza and Spanish guitarist and singer Jairo Zavala (of Depedro), and bassist Ryan Alfred have been regular members.
Typically, they’re also joined by a small host of collaborators: This time they include American indie musicians such as Pieta Brown, Neko Case, Ben Bridwell (Band of Horses), Sam Beam (Iron and Wine), Spain’s Amparo Sanchez (Amparanoia), and Mexican indie pop singers Carla Morrison and Gaby Moreno. This album’s major inspiration came from Mexico City, with side trips to Spain and Greece. The result is a remarkably cohesive album that hews closely to their core sonic palette – call it Southwestern Spaghetti-Western Surf Noir – with excursions into cumbia and ska, plus Old World flavors from the Mediterranean. And Burns continues to grapple in his lyrics with Southwestern border issues – land, water, borders real and imagined – and the effects they have on people (and vice-versa).
The most accessible (and sure to be popular) numbers here are the upbeat, danceable songs like the opener “Falling From The Sky” with its burbling analog synthesizer, soaring horns, crunching power chords and sing-along chorus; the ska-inflected “Beneath The City Of Dreams”; the crazily infectious single “Cumbia de Donde”; and the Mexico City instrumental homage “Coyoacán.” “Cumbia de Donde” reminds me of riding on the Mexico City subway because of its swirling crush of rhythm and sound, the swooping, bleeping and bopping synthesizer lines, the insistent beat and Burns’s distorted vocals. It’s one of the most explicit songs of immigration and displacement Calexico has recorded to date. Burns intones a litany of pan-American place names:
“Starting in Sonora, down to Oaxaca / trouble in Tijuana and San Diego / Mexicali and San Francisco / Juarez, El Paso I’m on my way, I’m on my way … “
… as the backing chorus asks insistently “De donde eres, a donde vás?” – where are you from, where are you going? This one is guaranteed to pack the dance floor, by the way. A fun, fun song and a sneaky way to deal with subversive themes.
The rest are mostly dark both musically and lyrically. The grungy, bluesy “Bullets & Rocks” tells an impressionistic tale of treachery on the coyote trail. “Miles From The Sea” is a somber metaphoric ballad of desert and ocean, mining in the dust and swimming in the sea, delving in the ancient past and reaching fruitlessly toward the future. “World Come Undone” is a quintessential mysterious Calexico ballad, its sparse acoustic arrangement and its lyrics evoking the prickly Sonoran desert “waiting for tenderness to come.” “Moon Never Rises” sets haunting keyboard sounds against a jaunty ska beat as Burns sings a duet with Carla Morrison about someone waiting for a time of sorrow to pass on by.
To me, “Tapping On The Line” is the album’s pivot point. Set to a lightly loping rhythm and a portentous, droning Moog bass, its verses are packed with layers of meaning and metaphor. The “tapping” of the title evokes wire tapping, rhythmic drumming, and coded messages; the “lines” evoked are phone lines, power lines that feed our devices, map lines and transit lines, airlines and border lines, all of which sometimes divide and sometimes unite people. Burns, backed by Neko Case’s plaintive harmonies, emphasizes the desperation, paranoia and frustration we’ve all felt in airport security queues: “Could you step a little closer to the line … could you speak a little more clearly on the line?”
Fortunately, the album ends on a slightly upbeat note with the lovely “Follow The River,” one of Burns’s most heartfelt love songs ever. Driven by an insistently strummed tenor guitar (or possibly a quatro) its blue minor key gives it that frisson of melancholy and hopefulness that I find in all of the music I love best. “I dream of you in the falling rain,” he sings, and “still have the wounds that the sun won’t ever heal,” his verses punctuated by the falsetto crooning of DeVotchka’s Nick Urata. And even though the singer is “surrounded by the emptiness of everything, everyone,” he’s still “not giving up, I’m getting there,” and the song and album end on a mixed note of hope and despair, a pedal steel wailing its way down, down, through a couple of octaves – a plane nearing the runway, a car coasting into the driveway, a river finding the sea. I want to listen to this song several times a day but resist becoming too familiar with it and losing touch with the crazy mix of emotions it evokes.
As you can tell, I drank the Calexico Kool-Aid a long time ago. But I haven’t loved everything they’ve done, and it’s been a while since I’ve been this excited about one of their studio releases – heck, about any new pop album. There’s a lot of 2015 yet to come, but everybody else is going to have to work hard to knock Edge of the Sun out of my top spot.