I had the good fortune not to know very much about the new Calexico record before I heard it in its entirety. I only knew that it was the new album from a band whose work I respected, had admired from afar, and had a chance to open for with my own band in my home country of Canada (though I didn’t get to meet anyone in the band).
My first impression of Edge of the Sun was that the songs — these well-constructed and satisfying singer-songwriter songs — might sound good on a movie or TV soundtrack. But as I listened more, I realized this album was more than that; this is the fine añejo, the special reserve, smooth, smoky and deep. Had Calexico been making their way here, or had these songs been here all along, waiting to be tapped? Either way, there’s extra heat in the songwriting, a more serious flirtation with convention, maybe, and a sense of continuity. The production is big, with chiming bells, layered synths, a crashing chorus, familiar brass and soaring harmonies leading off the record in the opener “Falling from the Sky.” But not uncomfortably so. It’s a work just comfortable enough in its own skin.
I didn’t have the benefit of album credits in front of me, so it was fun to play “guess the guest” as tracks came on (that sounds like Sam Beam on “Bullets and Rocks”… is that Neko Case on “Tapping on the Line”?), and upon further internetting it turns out I was right. The Beam cameo in particular is a nice callback to the Iron & Wine and Calexico EP (2005’s In the Reins) and their joint tours of years gone by. I can’t really comment on who wrote or played what, but I will say that something about this particular combination works really well. The lush yet somehow spooky harmonies are unmistakable.
I hear a harmonica, beautiful pedal steel, B3 organ and then a drumbeat from one of those church-basement organs, the ones with all the presets, that say “Farfisa” or “Hammond” on them, and I keep coming back, on repeated listens, to the pop sensibilities on this album, used to such great effect. The sounds are conventional, and there’s almost a fearlessness about applying this ethos to a music that has worn such a deep groove, and has so effectively branded itself. It hits me in the feeling place, and maybe it was designed to do that, but it really works for me.
Amazingly, near the mid-point, is the detour to what should become a cross-border dance-hall smasher, “Cumbia de Donde.” Google Translate doesn’t give me much on what it means, but they own it, and the song feels earned. It’s the most danceable and upbeat song on the album.
“Miles from the Sea” might be my favourite. This and what follows are two flashpoints, for different reasons. One is a flowing, loping song with the great lines in the chorus: “dreams about swimming/miles away from the sea.” The next one, “Coyoacán,” reminds me about what I think about when I think about this music — classic and well-defined instrumental pieces that seem to exist in their own world. Somehow they’ve both been lifted even further in the context of the record.
My ears perked up at what sounds like a smash-up of dub reggae, Mexicali pop music, and traditional instrumentation on “Moon Never Rises.” If ever there were a good example of the ease with which music floats across borders, it might be this. It sounds good, as in the sounds are good, and doesn’t feel forced, but more like a natural outgrowth into an exciting new place.
What Edge of the Sun does so well is to bring a new sensibility and some tremendous guest performances to an already great project. It’s a dynamic and pleasing listen, and I would recommend it to my friends.