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Arguably no genre of music lends itself to the widescreen, to the vast palette of emotions, as Americana. Think of the evocative imagery of small town America captured by Woody Guthrie as he took country music back to its folkiest roots or of the epic storytelling of Bruce Springsteen that Christopher Nolan can be envious of. Think of the emotional punches to the gut delivered by Uncle Tupelo or of the sheer sonic wizardry of their later incarnation, Wilco. In short, when it comes to Americana and alt. country music there is no excuse for bands to feel the weight of history upon their shoulders rather than fly down an endless road with unfettered ambition.
Over the dozen years since their inception, Arizona’s Calexico have made a decent fist of this. Their sprawling 2003 album Feast of Wire saw them stretch the boundaries of their sound to incorporate flavours and spices from a range of genres and there’s hitherto been an ill-disguised and pleasing endeavour throughout the band’s discography never to make the same record twice.
Of course, the ideal of Americana I talked about in the opening to this review is more than slightly obfuscated by rose-tinted glasses, and seventh album Algiers is perhaps the first suggestion that Calexico are not immune from the inherent limited nature of its scope. The majority of tracks here are lightly strummed acoustic guitar interjected by short shards of electric guitar/piano (‘Fortune Teller’, the mistitled opener ‘Epic’) or they’re lightly picked acoustic guitar ditties interjected by short shards of electric guitar/piano (‘Maybe on Monday’, ‘Better and Better’, ‘Hush’). Think Damien Rice moves to New Orleans... and then splash some cold water on your face.
Algiers is still though recognisably a Calexico album, which will undoubtedly please their many admirers. There are still hints of ambition abound, but in every case they seem forced. The Spanish-language ‘No te Veyas’ (‘Don’t Go’ apparently, but like Bob Loblaw, Yo no hablo español) comes across as cheesy enough that it might well have appeared in a deleted scene from The Expendables 2 where Sly and Co. don comedy moustaches and sombreros to infiltrate a gang of ne’er-do-wells. Elsewhere the album’s title track sounds like a fake plastic version of something from the Vicky Cristina Barcelona soundtrack, and at the nadir ‘Sinner in the Sea’ pulls in barroom blues and meringue rhythms and farts them into the title music from Sex and the City.
The mid-western ensemble’s music has never been unpleasant, and so it almost goes without saying that there’s nothing really wrong with or bad about this album; ‘Para’ is a decent and intriguing track that aptly sounds like ‘Paranoid Android’ with a whole load of bits thrown out and played drunk in a New Orleans bar. Still, it feels more like an interlude here, an oasis in a dustbowl of ideas. Not a bad album, just a boring one.
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