Calexico spent the 2010s venturing from their Tucson home to make albums such as their New Orleans love letter Algiers and their ambitious trip to Mexico City, Edge of the Sun. For The Thread That Keeps Us, they decamped to the Northern California coast and recorded in a studio they nicknamed the Phantom Ship -- another change of scenery that allowed them to cast their sounds and songwriting wider than ever. They set the tone for the album with "End of the World with You," where they find "love in the age of extremes" and rough up their jangly pop with some of their wildest solos yet. This need to find -- and sometimes fight for -- moments of joy and truth during hard times resonates on every track of The Thread That Keeps Us. Calexico have never shied away from social commentary, and they express the urgency of the late 2010s on unflinching songs like "Eyes Wide Awake" and "Dead in the Water," a snarling, stomping portrait of consumption and destruction. The band conveys this devastation more subtly -- and even more artfully -- on "Thrown to the Wild"'s hazy ruminations and on "Voices in the Field," where their outrage smolders rather than blazes.
Fortunately, Calexico spend as much time enjoying the world as trying to save it on The Thread That Keeps Us. Northern California's mellow beauty seeps into "Girl in the Forest" and balances its ecological concerns with a peaceful vibe. Elsewhere, the band's flair for vivid imagery comes to the fore on "The Town & Miss Lorraine," which combines an old woman, a book of stories from a sunken ship, and plenty of rum into a haunting vignette. However, Calexico sound the most joyous when they're exploring the eclectic mix of sounds at which they've always excelled. The album's midsection is frequently thrilling: "Flores y Tamales" is an equally funky and majestic update of the band's earliest days; the gritty beats and brass on "Under the Wheels" hark back to Feast of Wire; and the restless percussion and squalling trumpets of "Another Space" make it one of the band's most rewarding experiments. By turns gentle and bold, traditional and boundary-pushing, The Thread That Keeps Us is another fine example of Calexico's ever-broadening horizons. ~ Heather Phares