On El Mirador, chameleons Calexico have outstretched their wings into new musical turns once again. From the beginning, the band invoked shades of the conjunto norteño and spaghetti western—nods to their southwestern origins, getting their start as a rhythm section-for-hire in Tucson. The desert landscapes that their music paints beget their namesake, though one could argue that they’ve never worn their region on their sleeve quite as ebulliently as they do on El Mirador.
Calexico’s tenth studio album drips with energetic cumbia, conjunto, and mariachi influences—a sort of “Arizona noir” answer to the excellent baroque folk-rock of Lord Huron’s Long Lost. Twenty-six years on, Calexico are still finding means for innovation wrapped in a hearty nod to the region’s folk music that they blossomed in. The album may hone in on past sonic influences but does so with a cinematic flair that doesn’t seem unfitting for the band.
El Mirador marks a return to Tucson for Calexico founders Joey Burns and John Convertino, who’ve made respective moves to Boise and El Paso. It was recorded in the summer of 2021 at bandmate Sergio Mendoza’s home studio. The album summarily answers a hot question from the band’s “little big town” foundation—if there were any doubt that Calexico were still a “Tucson band”, El Mirador feels like an extended love letter to these roots. Rooted in Latin American influences that permeate the region, Calexico lean in hard on the Old Pueblo to grasp lyrical brilliance.
“The El Burro Song” is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the southwestern party scene, complete with crafty fiddling, lively horns, and lines that convey vivid imagery—a bathroom floor replete with sawdust, a woman’s sweet “horchata kiss”. Community is often the go-to Calexico through-line, and it’s exemplified here in the transition from one party-hardy jig into another with “Liberada”. Its sing-along progression reminds listeners of the power of unity, though irony is neatly employed when you realize it’s a clarion call to their uncle’s 80th birthday party.
Herein lies the catch on its pandemic-era recording. Even in times of intense division and peril, this is a celebration of and remembrance of togetherness—even from six feet apart or over Zoom or Discord. Calexico acknowledge heavier topics, as well. Border issues pervade the southwest, as Burns reminds with a slink and a whisper across “El Paso”, its harrowing arrangement setting the backdrop for a wax against disunity.
We hear more from Calexico’s indie-rock side on El Mirador, too. “Harness the Wind” accentuates gorgeous guitar melodies courtesy of Burns, aptly telling the story of dream-heavy troubadours. Fittingly, Sam Beam reconvenes with Calexico on the chorus, adding further texture to the already-tactile tune, complete with Mendoza’s drums, bass, and synth. Gaby Moreno prominently features on the ascending “Constellation”, made by back-and-forth vocal deliveries alongside a heartful trumpet. Much of the album is danceable, with its titular opener developing a rhythmically driven noir. This energy pervades in a more explosive suit on “Cumbia Peninsula” and “Cumbia del Polvo”. Jairo Zavala features on the former track, delivering a confident vocal across the infectious arrangement, while the latter offers a bass-heavy cumbia with tinges of surf-rock rhythm.
Much of El Mirador celebrates the power of community. That can be welcome, bittersweet, or both depending on one’s viewpoint. In the light of an ongoing pandemic, Calexico primarily paint with a big, positive brush. In broad strokes, they accentuate the power of togetherness in encouraging political change and discouraging violence and division between people. If El Mirador is Calexico’s way of building an inclusive bridge, they have ensured it has a strong foundation. Along the way, they offer a hearty nod to the city that made them and even introduce a few new musical tricks to the fold.