It’d be easy to overstate the importance of Arizona alt-country vets Calexico setting up shop in New Orleans to record their seventh studio album, Algiers. Since the mid-’90s, the group has made nearly all its records in Tucson at WaveLab Studios, a recording facility that’s become almost synonymous with the band. Algiers ends a four-year hiatus between studio outings and marks a move to the record label ANTI-, home to Tom Waits and Neko Case. Not that Calexico has just been sitting around; since 2008’s Carried To Dust, the group has scored films and worked on albums like Case’s Middle Cyclone and Amos Lee’s Mission Bell.
After four years of waiting for inspiration to strike, Joey Burns and John Convertino seem to have found the same edginess and darkness in New Orleans they found in the Southwest. Calexico has always dabbled in—or, mastered, really—a wide range of genres, so it’s not surprising to get a new album packed with stylistic references. With the New Orleans backstory, listeners might expect some sort of “Calexico-in-New Orleans” album—slow drags, diminished chord walk-downs, blues stomps—but Algiers still feels decidedly Southwestern. It has the same parched and airy desert quality that all of the group’s records do. What New Orleans does seem to have inspired in Calexico, though, is some of its best songwriting.
Instead of a second line or the clarinet wobble of Johnny Dodds, what Burns heard in New Orleans was the melting pot of musical styles—namely the Afro-Cuban influence, already so much a part of Calexico’s oeuvre. On “Sinner In The Sea,” Burns tells of “a piano playing on the ocean floor / between Havana and New Orleans,” and his words, always fractured and vague, take on a humid, sun-drenched lyricism. “Sinner” is the raunchy, screwed-up American take on Cuban music that Tom Waits found for songs like “Jockey Full Of Bourbon” on Rain Dogs. It’s nothing new for Calexico either; The Black Light covers a similar ground. There are other direct Latin influences too: “Puerto”—with its fuzz bass, squiggling electronic percussion loop, and classical guitar plucks—and “No Te Vayas” both feature lyrics in Spanish.
The songs are all strange, sad tales told as sparse vignettes. “Fortune Teller” is a folky cross-picked ballad that hangs on the IV chord like an early Dylan number, and the minor-key “Better And Better” is a showcase for Burns’ dusty tenor. But the album’s best song is “Splitter,” which is probably the biggest song Calexico has ever done. It has a big hook and bigger production: a thin, churning electric rhythm guitar, a sweeping highway tempo, and irresistible horn punches. The title track is the lone instrumental on Algiers, and its echoing slide guitar and Paul Niehaus’ pedal steel display Calexico’s knack for squeezing a lot of things into a production without sacrificing the integrity of any instrument or part. It’s a reminder that the band’s members are all great jazzmen at heart—but that’s how they wound up in New Orleans in the first place.