Here’s the tea leaf reading for all of those cribbing notes on the career of Calexico: El Mirador, the once-Tucson-based collective’s 10th studio LP, is the group’s most Latin-based work to date and also perhaps its finest and definitely bravest outing since 2012’s Algiers. There you go – signed, sealed, delivered.
The band wastes little time nailing down the sum total of its thesis statement. The record starts with the high drama of the enigmatic title track, a lurch of sorts soaked in Mezcal that the band fully embraces in later tracks. The thing is well-adorned and dead to rights, down to the scraping sounds of the string section and the backing vocals from Guatemalan singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno. “Cuidado con el mirador/ Ve si puedes encontrarlo,” repeats an addictive little chorus. “Zumbando en tu corazón/ Vamos a buscarlo (Roughly “Watch out for the lookout/ See if you can find it/ Buzzing in your heart/ Let’s look”) The song sounds like the sort of thing Welles envisioned the shadowy American/Mexican border to sound like in Touch of Evil. If you’re not humming along within moments, something is most definitely wrong with you – consult with a doctor or an exorcist and call us back in the morning.
The whole record, in fact, begs listeners to drop their kicks and come storming to the dancefloor. “Cumbia Peninsula,” a take on the Colombian song form, slinks and shuffles along beautifully, which is the kind of rhythmic thrum we’ve come to expect from Joey Burns and John Convertino. (The chorus, with its interjected trumpets, is knock-‘em-dead good.) “Cumbia del Polvo,” another stab (quite successful, we should note) at the form, is even more exotic and dancefloor-ready, with Burns’ guitars transformed into slithering snakes and Convertino’s percussion almost entirely turned over to hand drums and maracas. “The El Burro Song” is so definitely (defiantly?) steeped in mariachi tradition you’ll wonder if these guys are sleuthing through the pages of an old Latin-x playbook – but it works and works, repeatedly, very well. Sometimes, it’s even easy to forget Burns left behind the Arizona horizons for a new home in Idaho. But, so it goes.
This being Calexico, there’s a little Americana Tex to go with the rumbling Mex, and songs like “El Paso,” a folksy, border-jumping tribute to Convertino’s new hometown, and the ballad “Constellation” shine. Burns’ guitar takes a mysterious step out on “Turquoise,” calling to mind the shadows it formulated on tracks like “Bloodflow,” off 1998’s The Black Light. On the track, Calexico stable trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela does his best Miles Davis impersonation, blurting out equally nuanced and sexed-up phrases, and is borderline stunning at times. “Rancho Azul,” with its rousing ascents and Wild West motifs, could’ve been a B-side from the excellent Feast of Wire or Carried To Dust.
There are lesser moments, but few of them. “Then You Might See,” an indie-rock pre-requisite course of sorts, stands on shaky legs until it reaches its chorus, when the trebly guitars take flight and Burns finds the center of things. “Caldera” is an interesting closing song, muted in comparison to much of the record, but not a real scene-stealer. (I prefer going big, a la “All Systems Red.”)
It’s been almost four years since Calexico released a proper studio album, with the dawn of the 2020s giving way to a Christmas theme record (lackluster) and an Iron & Wine collaboration (better). If it took four years of percolation to perfect El Mirador, I firmly encourage Burns and Convertino to sit on their material again next time. The new record is really quite good, sometimes even breathlessly so. It grows on you and deeply rewards repeated listening. And what more could you ask from these cinematic scene-painters? — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, April 13, 2022