Calexico, “Seasonal Shift”
Calexico is a Southwestern Americana institution at this point in their career. They’re also somewhat underrated even today when not attached to their various side projects with Sam Beam and other roots musicians. Their back catalog is as sturdy as the family vacation car your dad wished he had during the long hauls across the great American landscape. Calexico’s new holiday album found inspiration in a variety of places according to co-founder Joey Burns, but the constant theme is friends and family celebrating and remembering the good moments.
Although not as many holiday vacations are happening this year, there are plenty of musical baubles and twinkling moments to unpack with Calexico’s tenth album, Seasonal Shift. “Hear the Bells” is a soaring opener about remembering your homeland—for Burns that means it’s also a tip of the hat to his cherished Tucson. He sells the scene of Dia de Los Muertos and All Souls Procession events in Southern Arizona, remembering the dead in the most joyous way possible.
Seasonal Shift features plenty of international and deepcut covers that charm in finely sketched ways. This is not an album that grapples with big hooks, especially during the sleepier back-half that recalls the earlier days of the band. Nick Urata of DeVotchKa singing a boisterous version of Tom Petty’s “Christmas All Over Again” and Gaby Moreno shimmying through Sergio Mendoza’s rendition of her track “Mi Burrito Sabanero” is probably all Calexico fans will require, though.
Mendoza—who’s been a part of Calexico, DeVotchKa, and Orkestra Mendoza over the years and continues to be a quadruple-threat on guitar, keyboards, horns, and percussion—is such an integral part of what makes Calexico the group they are today, and the instrumental piano bridge that he wrote for “Mi Burrito Sabanero” and its reprise is a fresh coat of paint on an old song structure. Moreno dropping in a Cuban-styled vocal take makes it even sweeter. Later in the track’s chorus, Burns’ twin daughters Twyla and Genevieve join in the fun as well—it’s a holiday album after all.
The rest of Seasonal Shift does take a bit of a prickly path after a no-nonsense cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (World Is Over).” There’s a quiet instrumental (“Glory’s Hope”) that serves more like a long bridge into the beautiful Spanish/Portuguese fado blues number “Tanta Tristeza,” which is about mourning a friend. The sorrowful singing from Gisela João really is a befitting wrapper for the track, but it drifts more than lifts the overall album.
Joey Burns’ lo-fi, garage track “Peace of Mind” also meanders in like a tattered rambler, an echo of the early “desert noir” Calexico albums like Spoke and Black Light. The bouncing electronic fuzz of “Sonoran Snowball” is more of an international production experiment that probably would have worked even better in a live setting. Seasonal Shift ends with a series of multilingual greetings during the “Mi Burrito Sabanero” reprise, and it’s a welcome reminder that the spirit behind this record is in such an emotionally correct place that it’s hard to fault any minor missteps along the way too much.