The Thread That Keeps Us, fearlessly offers provocative social commentary while embracing wide-ranging musicianship that pulls listeners into the artists’ rich, engaging musical tapestry.
“It’s a challenge not being angry,” says Joey Burns, Calexico’s singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
Based in Tucson, Ariz. for more than 20 years and named after a California border town, Calexico mainly embodies the vision of Burns and John Convertino, the band’s drummer and also a multi-instrumentalist. Known for their collaborations on record and on tour with artists like Neko Case, Sam Beam from Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell from Band of Horses, they also use a recurring cast of international musicians to create Calexico’s exotic sounds, which blend influences gleaned from Tex Mex, Mariachi, Indie Rock, composer Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks, Country, Jazz and various World music strains into a bold mélange of stirring songs, dynamics and themes.
Besides being touring musicians, Burns and Convertino are also a bit like tour guides, with each new Calexico album offering a different geographical focus. For example, 2012’s Algiers was recorded in New Orleans and much of 2015’s Edge of the Sun was made in Mexico City, with the multicultural music found on each reflecting the distinct locales.
For The Thread That Keeps Us, the musicians returned to Burns’ native California, recording at the Panoramic House, a home studio north of San Francisco and near Stinson Beach in Marin County, Calif. where bands like My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses have recorded.
Using the most recent presidential election as a catalyst, Calexico began working on the new material with a purpose, with Burns developing a storyline that emanates from a more personal and intimate place.
“Basically, I imagined what it would be like for characters to be put in a kind of Wes Anderson-like situation,” Burns says. “These young teenagers find each other, develop a friendship, maybe even a relationship, and through their bond they are able to overcome all sorts of challenges.”
Burns says that the serene and naturally pristine recording location made him begin to think about environmental concerns. The Panoramic House sits near the Pacific coastline and the mountains and redwoods of the Muir Woods National Monument, a national park named after influential preservationist, naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir.
“We kind of felt John Muir’s presence throughout the whole entirety of making this record,” Burns says. “I didn’t realize in going to California — in returning to the state where I grew up — that it would spark some ideas creatively that ended up influencing the shape of the album in a big way, from young love to environmentalism to the powers that be, whether it be corporate or (other forces), pushing things toward a toxic environment, literally and figuratively.”
The Thread That Keeps Us’ opener and lead single, “End of the World with You,” surges with apocalyptic imagery and lush, soaring swells as Burns sings about “love in the age of the extremes.” The song introduces the teenagers Burns mentions and a mood of romantic fatalism, with a roiling backdrop of despair. This core wave of empathy, danger and bliss swirls the songs together with fragile but exhilarating momentum. Like filmmaker Wes Anderson’s quirky celluloid fever dreams, Calexico creates a cinematic world of beauty, innocence and consequence.
Recalling a Noir-Western film soundtrack, eclectic instrumentals like “Unconditional Waltz” wind their way through the narrative and offer earthy textures and relief from the more charging rockers, with Calexico band members Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela (who’s been dubbed “the Miles Davis of Mariachi”) shining especially bright. “Flores y Tamales” is a jaunty Cumbia-styled song boisterously sung in Spanish by Jairo Zavala, Calexico’s touring bouzouki player.
Amid the apocalyptic and romantic intensity, the band finds room for a few gentle time-outs, like the gorgeous hymns to pastoral grace “Girl in the Forest” (the cosmic lyrics for which were inspired by Burns’ two young daughters) and “Music Box,” a shivery gem of solace and discovery that ends the record. “Voices in the Field” is one of Thread’s best songs — it fuses its truth and mantra with sinuous, African roots and rhythms looped over dissonant slices of electric guitar. It’s also the first of several to glow with the fugitive poetry woven through the immigrant refugee experience, an essential Calexico concern.
“Usually, we have the music recorded first, and then I go back and write lyrics to match the mood and maybe the sense of place and direction,” Burns says. “For the music of ‘Voices,’ I was thinking of (Nigerian musician) Bombino and a lot of North African music, especially Saharan desert music and how it relates to North American Blues and what’s happening here in the Southwest. There’s this common bond in both places of the music of the spirit.”
Burns says the wildly diverse musical layout of the album was the result of instinctively drawing from the broad template Calexico has established over the past two decades.
“It’s just who we are,” Burns says. “It’s a constant theme of having some instrumentals, some ballads and some more up-tempo, a little more cathartic (songs). We’re embracing everything that we are (on Thread) to make the best sound in the moment, thinking that this could possibly be our last album.
“You never know — I mean, after being around this long, you start wondering, will there be a need for another record after this? Let’s go deep like we always do and tap into the most honest, sincere and creative work we can and put that on a record. For me, it’s our best work.”
Others appear to think so as well. With the release of The Thread That Keeps Us, Burns says he’s noticed an uptick in new fans.
“I do think this record has struck a chord with a much wider group of people,” he says. “Just coming back from Europe, almost every show was sold out over there in advance, which rarely happens. Makes us happy, but it also makes us wonder why. “
Calexico plays the Woodward Theater Thursday with Ryley Walker. Tickets/more info: woodwardtheater.com.