[7 August 2013]
It’s a not uncommon step for a rock band to take a brief detour by making a live album with an orchestra. The results are usually somewhat rewarding, and primarily valuable for serious fans. Calexico’s not exactly a common rock band. Their mix of Latin styles, Americana, and indie rock have taken them to some unique musical places, and these spots have increasingly opened up as expansive vistas. It makes sense that the group would partner with an orchestra (or, in this case, two) to broaden the sound they’ve been building. In that regard, Spiritoso succeeds wonderfully, developing new textures for a new experience without feel like a gimmick or unnecessary experiment.
The album, coming three years after their giveaway album Live in Nuremberg and just one after the critically successful studio album Algiers, Spiritoso first appeared as a special item for this year’s Record Store Day. For anyone who missed the vinyl, the album was released this summer in digital form. The album takes a third of its tracks from Algiers, but includes material reaching all the way back to Joey Burns and John Convertino’s earliest recordings under the Calexico name. Those cuts, recorded here as “Frontera / Trigger” in an updated form that suggests the band’s forward movement more than their fan-pleasing returns to the past.
The album’s best track also digs from the past, plucking one of the band’s best recordings, “Quattro” from 2003’s Feast of Wire for a re-working. This rendition, with the Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg, doesn’t radically alter the original. It keeps the original groove and atmosphere but fills out some texture to it. This performance expands the scope of the song, not necessarily for the better (or for the worse) in ways that are subtle but likely to appeal to those who have been hearing earlier versions for a decade now.
Newer tracks do fare well in this format, too, even if they don’t always benefit from enough exploration. “Fortune Teller”, an Algiers cut that probably owes something to New Orleans provides a wonderful floating exit for the album, but it’s unfortunate that the symphony doesn’t play a bigger role here. Calexico and its partner could have worked to turn this into something unique, and a more fitting outro. The other tracks from Algiers come out similarly.
If the band didn’t want to go too far into orchestral territory (despite working with orchestras), they still could have taken a few more creative risks. “The News About William”, first released on 2008’s Carried to Dust gives an example of what could have happened on more of these recordings. There’s no gigantic shift in sound, but the additional musicians add swells, plucked strings, and a new windwood part that adds a small but significant sound. It’s true to the original recording, but delivers a new sound and a new insight into the piece.
Even without fully embracing the orchestral opportunities, Calexico has put together a string of good recordings of good songs in a new setting. While it’s most likely a record for current fans, you could do worse for an entry point, and it raises questions about where the group might be headed next.