Back as far as 2006’s Garden Ruin, Calexico began trying to escape the trap of a distinctive sound they’d spent years perfecting. Up until then, you could count on Joey Burns, John Convertino, and company to evoke everything from spaghetti westerns to southwestern deserts to sun-baked city streets with forays into noise or jazz thrown in for good measure. Even after Garden Ruin, you could still count on the band for those things, but by then they had begun experimenting with different — even traditional pop — song structures.
As the band matured, they also began welcoming collaborations with a host of other musicians. It was only fitting, given the band’s roots in Howe Gelb’s musical collectives, not to mention Burns and Convertino’s sideman work on albums by folks like Richard Buckner, Barbara Manning, and Neko Case.
Edge of the Sun sounds like the album where all of those things come together to make Calexico’s most consistent record. Even for a Calexico record, it’s heavy on collaborations, with appearances by Case, Sam Beam, Carla Morrison, Gaby Moreno, Amparo Sanchez, members of the Greek band Takim, Devotchka‘s Nick Urata, and Band of Horses‘ Ben Bridwell. You also have the band achieving some of their poppiest songs to date, such as the straightforward album-opener “Falling from the Sky”. Perhaps owing to the record being recorded not only in the band’s familiar environs of Tucson, Arizona, but also in Mexico City, Edge of the Sun also finds Calexico taking interesting paths through the Latin influences that anchor the band’s sound.
On the one hand, “Coyoacán Theme” (named for the historic neighborhood in Mexico City where the band stayed) is the kind of cinematic instrumental that Calexico can play in their sleep. On the other, there’s heart to the way it stays in lockstep rhythm even as it swells. “Cumbia de Donde” starts off with a pair of electronic melodies weaving around each other, but the song quickly digs deep into horns, lively percussion, Spanish-sung lyrics, shouts of “hey, hey, hey”, and Amparo Sanchez’s vocals meeting Burns’ turn for turn. “Cumbia de Donde” quickly pulls you into its depths and becomes an immersive experience both reverent and playful, showing a true love of the form that bats away any shallow criticisms that Calexico were ever only dabblers in another culture’s sounds and traditions.
Contributions from other musicians are so thick and plentiful on Edge of the Sun (even extending to keyboardist Sergio Mendoza co-writing, co-arranging, and co-producing some of the record) that even the more straightforward songs contain more layers than we’re used to hearing on a Calexico record. This isn’t a record where someone just slaps a guest vocal onto a track and that’s that; the contributions here become woven into the fabric of the songs, and at their best, transform them.
Edge of the Sun is a strong album that continues the upward trajectory that became stronger as the lessons of albums like Garden Ruin took root. At this point, Calexico is still Calexico, with all the desert heat shimmer that their music has always evoked, but they’re also not as easy to pigeonhole as they used to be. Calexico always seem to have their eyes on some new musical horizon, always moving towards something slightly new, interesting, and strange.