Escondido’s 2013 debut album, The Ghost of Escondido, was reportedly recorded in one day. However, it’s not like Jessica Maros and Tyler James had met for the first time that very day. The duo had met two years prior, obviously spending much of that time refining what would become the Escondido sound. Throughout that debut and its follow-up, 2016’s Walking With a Stranger, Escondido offered up a mix of Ennio Morricone-inspired spaciousness and horns; catchy arrangements; and an often spooky, ethereal vibe even when the guitars were ringing and the drums pounding. It seems to have worked out pretty well for the duo so far, with their songs landing on TV shows like Girls, while the band themselves have appeared on Nashville and Conan O’Brien.
Warning Bells continues Escondido’s strand of evocative music. Despite a move from Nashville to Los Angeles, and using their first outside producer (Rob Schnapf, who’s worked with Beck, Kurt Vile and Elliott Smith, among others), Escondido still find plenty of riches worth mining from the sound they’ve created for themselves.
Even with those changes in view and personnel, the Escondido sound hasn’t dramatically changed. What’s new are subtle touches like keyboards, light sound effects, and moments of swirly cosmic psychedelia. “Never Would Have Thought” contains brief snippets of what sound like distant radio chatter in the background, while “Darkness” opts for a loungey vibe that’s late-night (and cosmopolitan) even by the standards Escondido have set for themselves. Small touches, but ones that give this new batch of songs an added layer and show that Escondido are reaching beyond the common Americana template of songs being either straight-ahead rockers or barstool tearjerkers (there’s still plenty of those two styles, too – witness the Nashville twang and ripping Telecaster solo of “Joke’s on Me” — and it’s great).
As a result, Warning Bells is probably the strongest Escondido record yet. “Crush on Her”, the album’s second track, easily stands as one of the band’s best songs so far, charging ahead with its tale of “the girl who walked in last night / I swear she lit the place on fire”. Full of country flourishes and catchy vocal hooks, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the Escondido sound. Likewise, album-opener “Bullet” gets a full head of steam in parts where the band gets guitars, horns, pedal steel, lead vocals, overdubbed backing vocals, and more blending together and driving towards the song’s end. “You Get Me High” blasts off on soaring horns, shimmery effects, and the band’s patented eerie desert vibe.
An obvious point of comparison for Escondido’s sound is Calexico, but not just because the two bands share a love of mariachi horns. Like the southwestern vistas that Calexico often evokes, Escondido’s songs also attempt to create something large and cinematic within the constraints of a three- or four-minute pop song. At its best, Escondido’s music creates its own little pocket universes where heartbreak and longing take on their own epic qualities. Small wonder, since Maros and James originally met by discussing their mutual fondness for Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks. If you haven’t checked out Escondido yet, you can’t go wrong with any of their three albums so far, but Warning Bells represents a successful step forward for a band who had their basic sound figured out from the start.