Review of Algiers Album by Calexico

It is a common occurrence for artists with long careers to try and change their surroundings in order to give themselves new stimuli, and therefore reignite the muse - Paul Simon did it with his trip to Graceland, as did Justin Vernon with his well-documented cabin in the woods episode that resulted in Bon Iver and the fantastic 'For Emma, Forever Ago'.

Calexico Algiers Album

'Algiers' is Calexico's seventh studio album, and it is named after a province of New Orleans, the city they moved to to write and record their new album. Speaking about this decision, singer Joey Burns said; 'The place is strong and bold, soulful to the core, but surrounded by a sea of darkness, there's something creepy and old on the edge of town and written throughout the town's histories. Those kinds of aesthetics help with the writing." This is a hugely illuminating quote, and one that echoes throughout the album - a certain feeling of darkness punctuated by hope. The theme of water is, unsurprisingly, a large part of the lyrical focus of the record - not in that the songs speak specifically of Hurricane Katrina, but rather that Burns uses the language of rivers, waterlines and tides to describe the personal moments on the record. The waterlines he must've seen every day on the buildings of New Orleans entered his daily life, and therefore his lyrical output.

However, although the movement to a new place can often work miracles, on Algiers one gets the feeling that the ambition taken on by the band - to create a foreboding yet uplifting encapsulation of the city - falls a little short.

First track Epic introduces the dark nature of the record; an acoustic minor chord progression provides the track's rhythm as violins and harmonies provide the atmosphere, the track ebbing and flowing, building up and down, attempting to create a kind of Neon Bible 'big first track' without ever really being dark or beautiful enough to fully envelop the listener's attention.

The second track, Splitter, fares much better with Burns telling an age old Americana tale of leaving a suffocating small town and blue collar job in order to move on over a much more upbeat and driving track that has similar melodic lines to Epic, showing the hope rising out of the darkness of the opening track.

Elsewhere, there is the lovely Fortune Teller; a simple acoustic number that has more than a few similarities to 'New Slang', Burns singing of the fear of traveling that long dark road alone. Hush is another beautiful track, Burns' softly spoken voice lilting over a lovely finger-picked guitar line.

Yet it is still the ambition and the striving for a new sound that ultimately lets the record down; title track Algiers, an instrumental Spanish guitar-led track, smacks of an ambitious and certainly hugely competent band looking to extend their musical scope without really creating anything strong enough to really move the listener. This is also seen on No Te Vayas - a Spanish song that comes across as slightly embarrassing; the sort of thing an aging Zorro might sing at karaoke.

It's a frustrating record to review as it isn't particularly bad; it sounds great and there are some lovely moments on it, but it has to go down as an ambitious miss-hit; the songs cut from the classic Calexico sound work best, but it is the admittedly admirable scope they aim for that lets the record down.

Simon Edmunds

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