There are really two types of holiday albums – the ones you listen to while decking the halls and swigging eggnog (my go-to every year is Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song) or with the family on the big day while opening gifts are the big sellers each year. But the other kind are the ones you save for yourself – maybe to listen to on the car ride over as a sort of advance palate cleanser for the onrush of holiday cheer you’re about to walk into. Tucson’s Calexico has produced one of the latter. Seasonal Shift is a multicultural collection of year-enders that can accompany you on the holiday roadie, or even on a drive south on a hot summer day.
The best Christmas albums blend originals, a couple of covers and a traditional tune or two, and Seasonal Shift checks all three boxes, in its own way. The lead track, “Hear The Bells,” definitely carries an Arizona feel, complete with ranchers, monsoons and mezcal. But bandleaders Joey Burns and John Convertino have also found the melancholy between Dia de los Muertos and New Year’s Day – “‘Cause it’s foolish to laugh and pointless to cry/About some old photos buried inside the cracked and crumbling walls” (any true Americana fan enjoys his or her revelry with a little sad on the side).
The covers on the record come via John Lennon and Tom Petty. “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” is a fairly standard rendition of the Lennon/Yoko Ono tune, with some horns and steel thrown in for fun. Tom Petty’s “Christmas All Over Again” is an underappreciated gem from the A Very Special Christmas collection (Volume 2, if you’re seeking it out). Calexico’s version brings some added pep to the tune, and Nick Urata, of Denver’s seminal DeVotchKa, contributes vocals (in true 2020 fashion, many of the album’s guest spots were recorded in home studios and arrived to the band virtually, but the record in flawlessly in synch). Throw in a small horn section, and you get a feeling of what Tom Petty might’ve sounded like if he’d emerged from the Desert Southwest instead of swampy Gainesville.
The “traditional” tune on Seasonal Shift is not your typical Christmas standard. “Mi Burrito Sabanero” (“My Little Donkey of the Savannah”) arrives via 1972 from Venezuealn songwriter Hugo Blanco. Fellow Venezuealan Gaby Moreno takes the mic for this one, bringing some danceable fun to the tale of hurrying a donkey toward Bethlehem.
The album’s title song feels the most “now” of anything on the record. “Seasonal Shift” is a kind of “happy by accident” song in the tradition of Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family” and Hayes Carll’s “Grateful for Christmas.” Driven by piano and keys, there’s potential for chaos – “the Christmas tree’s nearly caught on fire” – and disaster – “it’s funny this season there’s a reason I ain’t got no money” (a tragic joke all too familiar in late 2020) But this time of year always brings its odd comforts – “Mom and Dad now with gin and tonic in hand are more relaxed” – and, most importantly, allows us to begin moving on – “There it goes ‘round the bend/The year that would never end/Gonna wave bye bye.” At the conclusion of Seasonal Shift, most of the contributors reappear from places near and far to say hello and goodbye, signaling an end (we hope) to the chaos of 2020 and a fresh start.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Mi Burrito Sabanero” – because (hopefully) by next holiday season, we’ll be ready, willing and able to celebrate with a full band. And with each other.
Seasonal Shift was produced by Sergio Mendoza, Joey Burns and John Convertino, engineered and mixed by Chris Schultz and mastered by JJ Golden. All songs (save the aforementioned covers) were written by Burns, Convertino and Mendoza.
Go here to order Seasonal Shift: https://calexico.shop.redstarmerch.com/dept/new?cp=103578_108956