A perceptive journalist once referred to Calexico’s music as “desert noir.” The shorthand has stuck, even if it does convey an inaccurately narrow sense of the Tucson, Arizona band’s interests and capabilities. If anything, “The Thread that Keeps Us,” Calexico’s ninth studio album, goes easy on the noir and hard on the desert.
The generous offering of tracks, mostly recorded in an out-of-the-way studio in northern California the band dubbed “The Phantom Ship,” conjures the vast, arid, beautiful desert landscape of the American Southwest and its parched, often deadly counterpart on the other side of the border: Mexico’s Sonora desert. While the short instrumental piece “Unconditional Waltz” evokes the region’s past with pristine, often melancholy horns, songs like “Music Box” and “Girl in the Forest” feel urgent and contemporary. It’s as if Burns and Convertino compose music with a time machine in hand.
“There’s a little more chaos and noise in the mix” than in Calexico’s previous work, according to singer/guitarist Joey Burns, who founded the group alongside drummer John Convertino back in the early 1990s. There’s certainly an eclectic range of sounds, continuing Calexico’s passion for combining rock with Latin rhythms and instruments.
Throughout their long career, Calexico has managed to strike a balance between innovation and accessibility. While Burns and Convertino still indulge in some experimental fiddling in short pieces like “Spinball” and “Shortboard” and, especially, “Another Space,” perhaps the album’s most ambitious track, the music is easy to listen to and easy to embrace.
There is some noir to be found, especially in “Under the Wheels,” which manages to sound eerie despite working off a groovy Caribbean rhythm, and the striking “Dead in the Water.” The namesake protagonist of “The Town and Miss Lorraine” “has a way of making everyone she meets/ feel lost and lone with no direction home.”
But the overall state of mind is cheerful and optimistic. “End of the World with You,” the album’s lead single, carries more than a hint of eighties pop, even as it includes a reference to the visionary artist James Turrell, who has for decades used the desert light as a source of inspiration. “Bridge to Nowhere” is more serious, but not any less compelling for that. And my favorite track, “Flores y Tamales,” is just straight up joyful, an anthem for those hungry for love, but also for some comforting home cooking.
Not all the tracks are winners, many of them weighed down by rote and banal lyrics. “For your life/ open up your heart,” goes the refrain of “Voices in the Field,” “let me hear your voice/ let me hear you sing.” This is not a new problem for Calexico, though it doesn’t seem to bother its many fans, who range from musicians such as Nancy Sinatra and Arcade Fire to public figures like former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, to the producers of the National Public Radio show “This American Life.”
Still, for my money there’s a little too much mawkishness in Calexico’s love songs, a tendency to take the easy emotional path. I much prefer it when Burns and Convertino turn their gaze outward, to the yellow sand and the craggy rocks, the spiny cacti, and the chill of the starry desert night.