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Tuesday Reviewsday: Calexico, Tal National and Spirit Family Reunion

"Falling From The Sky" by Calexico from the album 'Edge of the Sun,' available April 14, 2015.
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This week on Tuesday Reviewsday, music journalist Steve Hochman joins Alex Cohen in the studio to talk about the best in new music releases.

Steve Hochman

Artist: Calexico
Album: "Edge of the Sun"
Songs: "Falling From the Sky," "Cumbia de Donde"
 Not long ago we talked about Mariachi El Bronx, the L.A. punks who had embraced mariachi music right down to the outfits. Well, Calexico doesn’t go in for the sartorial touches so much, but for much of its 20-year existence, the Tucson group has mixed ace alt-Americana with Mexican-style street-band horns for one of the most distinctive, winning sounds in modern rock. It’s never been a gimmick, but on the new "Edge of the Sun," the elements are integrated into a bracing, sun-bleached sound. "Falling From the Sky," for example, with its combination of yearning and desolation, would be a compelling song even without the horns. With them, even rather subtly utilized, it becomes a compelling mix of worlds, and of tones both happy and sad — straddling borders artistically and emotionally as much as the band name suggests it geographically.

"Edge of the Sun" is, in fact, the band’s most border-straddling album yet. Singer-guitarist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino, the founding and core members, here supplement their regular cohorts with guest appearances by Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell, Neko Case, L.A.'s Gaby Moreno, Baja California-born singer-songwriter Carla Morrison and even Greek folk instrumental group Takim.

And there was literal border-crossing, with most of the album having been written in Mexico City and production taking place at home in Arizona. The Latin American influence is particularly strong on "Cumbia de Donde," a new take on a traditional style featuring Carla Morrison. Heck, the song's title is about being between places, the lyrics about being on the way somewhere, a bit lost. But it's all about the journey, and Calexico is a perfect soundtrack.

Calexico will be at the Regent Theatre in downtown Los Angeles on July 7.

Artist: Tal National
Album: "Zoy Zoy"
Songs: "Claire," "Tenere"
A stamp on the back cover of Zoy Zoy, the new album by the band Tal National, reads "Recorded in Niamey, Niger, W. Africa." It is an indicator of authenticity, but also one of resolute determination — a we-are-still-here statement.

And with it is another The radical religious factions that tried to ban music in Mali and surrounding Saharan seems to have failed. Recent months have seen a rush of powerful new music from that region. Debuts from young Malian acts Songhoy Blues and the Bamako's BKO Quintet offer innovative, spirited twists on tradition. And Tal National, from neighboring Niger, brings a fiery dynamic to desert blues. Zoy Zoy, the title referencing something very sweet, is only the second Tal National album released outside of Niger, culminating a decade of the band gigging constantly, crisscrossing the country, often on dirt roads (at best) to play sets stretching more than five hours through the nights.

While Tal National's music rocks and swings with electric edge, it draws on a number of Saharan styles. Many of the songs are in the tradition of West African troubadours recounting tales of life and love, lyrics divided between the local Zarma and Hausa languages. The title song is about a young married woman grappling with physical changes after giving birth, while "Claire" (in Zarma) pays tribute to a group of the band's young female fans.

Throughout the music is a sense of history, culture and attendant fortitude, befitting a band whose leader, known only as Almeida, has served as a judge for more than 20 years. That's all captured powerfully in the song "Tenere," a Hausa-language commemoration of a tree in the desert that for generations had served as a landmark for nomad caravans until it was destroyed by a wayward truck driver. Now it’s been replaced by a metal sculpture, a monument to resilience. That's exactly what Tal National is as well.

Artist: Spirit Family Reunion
Album: "Hands Together"
Songs: "Put Your Hands Together When You Spin the Wheel," "Skillet Good and Greasy"
 Coney Island may not seem like a natural home for folk music. But Woody Guthrie lived there for a few years, and if it was good enough for him, it's good enough for Spirit Family Reunion. For its new album, the New York band found that perfect old-timey vibe in a makeshift studio set up somewhere between the Cyclone roller coaster and the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs stands.

Well, there is some roller-coaster rush and a good deal of hot-doggin’ with the banjo-and-washboard hoedowns behind the folk-gospel tunes and harmonies, chops they built busking the subway and farmers markets, as well as the festival circuit right up to the top, having been a buzz act at the Newport Folk Festival a couple of years ago.

Now, there’s a built-in hokeyness to the whole thing, vintage and rural affectations in the performances and thrift-store attire — the kind of stuff we’ve seen and heard with Old Crow Medicine Show and others of recent, uh, vintage. Of course, there's also some tradition in that, back 50-plus years to the oh-so-earnest Greenwich Village folk scene. And now, as then, there's a fine line between folk and faux. Fauxlk, if you will. What keeps Spirit Family Reunion on the right side of the line is, well, the spirit. But more importantly the songwriting, while sounding authentic enough in places to pass as the real thing, though all except one song here are band originals, has a currency to it. The songs "It Don't Bother Me" and "Put Your Hands Together When You Spin the Wheel" are almost Zen in their outlook.

It helps a lot that guitarist-singer Nick Panken doesn't affect a fake drawl or anything. Even Maggie Carson's banjo doesn't overdo it with devotional Earl Scruggsisms. And when they do tackle a traditional song with "Skillet Good and Greasy" (which may not be entirely about cuisine), they add a gritty, urban blues touch, just as it's done deep in the ol' Coney Island hollers.