The song is hushed, even by Calexico standards, self-conscious and even a little timid in its presentation. It unfurls with carefully finger-picked guitars and the occasional accompaniment of bowed upright bass and marimba. On some bridges, there are backing vocals – on others, none. The canvas is more bare than cluttered with sound; it features a devastatingly simple yet powerful delivery. “The spirit is broken, the path is overrun/ You can’t move forward and now nothing gets done,” frontman Joey Burn laments. “I hope you find some, in a peace along the way/ Whatever it takes I pray you’ll make it home on Christmas day.” In the year of Trump v. Biden, we think all of us, blue voters and red voters, politically unaffiliated and members of the Deep State alike, still can agree that Calexico’s best holiday song, perhaps one of its better songs by several metrics, is “Gift X-Change,” released without much fanfare on the Aerocalexico tour LP some 20 years ago. We are sad to report the song does not appear on the group’s new “holiday” album, Seasonal Shift. In fact, we are even sadder to report nothing on the new disc, out via ANTI-, even comes close to “Gift X-Change.”
Let’s face it: holiday records are a tough sell. While we doubt the folks at ANTI are pressuring the likes of Burns and Convertino to crank out chart-topping pap, it’s hard to listen to Seasonal Shift and not worry that very thing. The record isn’t bad, by definition. In fact, it might be one of Calexico’s more “accessible” outings for what it’s worth. But the emotions in the songs are so broad-stroked and the manner of presentation is so self-aware of its inclusiveness that it’s tough to get into the new material. And that’s a sad thesis for a band with these kinds of chops.
ANTI-’s press materials boast that the, let’s call it, Calex-mas LP is “less of a Christmas album and more of a cross-cultural seasonal celebration… based around that familiar end-of-year feeling of reflection, of ceremony and of recognition of the year gone by.” That’s a road Calexico has hoed before, most notably on family-debt gems like the epic “Bloodflow.” And, yes, “Nature’s Domain” – an outlier, and the record’s most nuanced and mysterious track – does a beautiful job of toying with these narratives. (The acoustic guitar is somber to the point of tears, which seals the deal.) But much of the record is dedicated to tracks like opener “Hear the Bells,” which is so gift-wrapped up on its Christmas niche-ness that it’s hard to chew without fear of candy-cane cavities.
Calexico’s take on Lennon’s infamous “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is good, if not terribly daring or imaginative. But that piece, however just OK it is, is lightyears ahead of the watery, faux-Orbison-ish cover of Tom Petty’s “Christmas All Over Again,” which is saccharine to the point of sickness. “Peace of Mind” hints at the Calexico epics of the band’s Quarterstick Records years but the title track, again – saccharine sweetness warning, sadly does not. And much of the record is a patchwork just like that: one song working, the next falling on its face. In case you didn’t get the ANTI-minted inclusiveness memo, the band ends with an overly overly inclusive holiday card recording in multiple languages, which caters to the season’s worst impulses. And don’t even get us started on the bouncy, oddball “Sonoran Snoball,” a kind of sitcomy spit-take on ’80s hip-hop that stretches most parameters of what these guys find to be palatable. In short, it is tone-deaf in its attempt to dose out the levity of the season.
2020 has been a shitshow and no holiday recording could get most listeners this year to reminisce about joy and goodwill towards our fellow man. (Christ, most of us won’t wear masks to keep brothers and sisters around us from falling victim to a pandemic, but we digress.) This might not be the year to get all Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass by way of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Calexico is a consistent deliverer of great music and even when working in more commercial idioms – say, Garden Ruin – the songwriting duo at its core brings out the best in their intercontinental cabal. But Seasonal Shift is poorly initiated and maybe a little poorly envisioned, too. We applaud everyone’s favorite Tucson, Ariz. band for launching in new directions, yes. Let’s just let 2020 die on the vine without any ham-fisted holiday cheer, okay? — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, Dec. 8, 2020