Calexico Returns With Colorful Amalgam of Signature Southwestern Sounds On “El Mirador” (ALBUM REVIEW)

Photo Credit: Holly Andres

El Mirador is the tenth album for the three decades running Calexico, co-founded by multi-instrumentalist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino. The album was recorded in Tucson at longtime bandmate and keyboardist Sergio Mendoza’s studio in Tucson, long the home of the band although Convertino has since relocated to El Paso and Burns now resides in Boise, ID. The desert has always been a focal point of the band’s music, and pandemic conditions required a relatively isolated space such as Mendoza’s to record throughout the summer of 2021.  It also inspired cherished memories of their favorite landscapes and the colorful intersections of music found on the border – Colombian dance music (cumbia), traditional Mexican folk (mariachi), Mexican country (ranchera), and ballads (corridos). In addition, there are elements of both Cuban son and Guatemalan strains in Calexico’s intoxicating mix as they invite Guatemalan singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno and Spanish rocker Jairo Zavala to participate on select tracks.

They open with the title track loosely translated “The Lighthouse,” symbolic in the sense of both searching and providing a beacon of light through the dark times of the pandemic. Through the percolating percussion, distant trumpets, and stunning array of instruments played by Burns and Mendoza and several others, the voice of Moreno emerges in alternating English and Spanish verses with the chorus “Listen to the beacon/calling you back/That buzzing in your corazon.” “Harness the Wind” is one of a few tunes without the trumpets, as Burns takes the lead vocal on the spacious synth-heavy tune with Iron & Wind’s Sam Beam joining on harmony. The flourishing dance number “Cumbia Peninsula” features Zavala (AKA Depedro in the credits) with three trumpets and another optimistic chorus – “Shine today like silver and gold/Light the way for tomorrow.” 

Singer-songwriter Pieta Brown wrote the lyrics for “Then You Might See” and “El Paso”.  The former is a hard driver fueled by Convertino’s incessant beats and the combination of Burns’ bowed upright bass and Mendoza’s electric bass. As per usual, Burns adds his layered touches with synth, vibes, and cello in addition to the guitars and bass. Brown’s poetry stands distinctly apart from the Burns/Convertino writing in its short poetic lines in the former, a tune that regales the history and gods of the desert. Here’s the last verse – “100 years/100 days/How small the world/Depends on the place/Almost threshold/Almost free/If you wake me up now/Then you might see.”  “El Paso” tells of the complications and on-the-edge violence that comes with relationships on both sides of the border, while at the same time seeking unity.

“Cumbia Del Polvo” features the Mexican Institute of Sound, a chorale of voices soaring over a mix of electronic beats, organic instrumentation, and driving, reverberating rhythms. “The El Burro Song” transports you to a backyard party where you will find the traditional Mexican elements at hand – mariachi horns, nylon string guitars, and violins for a dancing style referred to as zapateado – a form of tap dancing. Its joyous vibe belies some of the lyrics as Burns tells of a fight breaking out in his last verse, one that left his friend with a busted jaw, while the protagonist is left alone after the convivial spirt has long evaporated. Mendoza’s piano and his bent for Cuban percussion drive “Liberata” which could easily be interpreted as a rallying revolutionary rave-up when instead it is the need to celebrate an uncle’s 80th birthday no matter what chaos may be at hand. 

“Turquoise” may well be one of the best instrumentals Calexico has ever done. It’s relatively spare compared to many, with Burns’ guitar, piano, cello, and vibes backed by drums, upright bass, and Jacob Valenzuela’s trumpet to create a dark ethereal soundscape that evokes the kind of dark, stormy skies the band endured during the record-setting monsoon season last summer. 

“Constellation,” on the other hand, is the polar opposite – bright and the most romantic of any here with wonderful vocal harmonies as Moreno and Valenzuela, who also delivers an impressive trumpet solo, back Burns’ lead against the ethereal soundscape forged by pedal steel, synths, and guitars. “Rancho Azul” is a charged Latin-infused danceable tune while the closer, “Caldera,” which means a volcanic crater, is a metaphor for loss and a plea for resilience played to the more atmospheric desert-like vibe with touches of psychedelia. In one way, it’s a strange theme to end on, especially the last line – “Returning to a field of tears” when there are so many joyous or romantic passages in many of the other tunes. 

Yet, Burns explains the album this way, “The pandemic highlighted all the ways we need each other, and music happens to be my way of building bridges and encouraging inclusiveness and positivity. The comes along with sadness and melancholy, but music sparks change and movement.”  In our increasingly divisive society, we need these voices calling for unity and celebrating connections between people. As the title implies, we need those beacons of hope,

Related Content

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Posts

New to Glide

Keep up-to-date with Glide

Twitter