Of all of Calexico’s recent projects and appearances—their collaboration with Iron & Wine, contributions to Laura Cantrell and Neko Case albums—it’s safe to say that nobody expected the most telling sign of their future direction to be a live Elliott Smith cover. No more mariachi instrumentals, no more post-rock interludes, no gypsies, picadores or ill-tempered robots. Garden Ruin, their first proper full-length since 2003′s Feast of Wire, comes much closer to the late Pacific Northwestern singer-songwriter than Ennio Morricone or Will Oldham, to the point that the listener begins to wonder whether or not this is, in fact, actually Calexico.
The twang, reverb and dark, moody soundscapes of Calexico’s past haven’t been completely abandoned, they’ve merely been toned down, though quite dramatically, sacrificed in an effort to put songwriting before atmosphere. Though I hesitate to put the band down for trying something new, it’s hard not to miss those cinematic, Southwestern qualities that characterized Calexico’s identity until now. Getting past the familiar will possibly be the hardest part for those approaching this album for the first time, but an open mind will reveal a curiously consistent and cohesive album, much to the contrary of the band’s prior, fractured by design artistry.
Instead of an album marked by alt-country, torch songs, interludes, instrumentals, experiments and jazzy diversions, Garden Ruin is actually quite straightforward. From the get-go, “Cruel” reveals a moody, yet fairly conventional folk-pop sound, albeit one with some familiar treats, such as the horns during the chorus, the weeping lap steel, and of course, Joey Burns’ soothing vocals. It may not be exactly what we’re used to, but it’s such a well-crafted song that it really doesn’t matter. Yet simpler, acoustic songs like “Bisbee Blue,” “Panic Open String” and the “Baby Britain”-like “Lucky Dime,” sound much more like the work of, you guessed it, Elliott Smith. Atypical influence for the band Smith might be, you could do a lot worse in terms of melodic parallels.
All of this is not to say that Calexico sounds nothing like they did before. The second half of the album harbors a greater number of identifiably Burns and Convertino compositions, beginning with “Roka (Danza de la Muerte),” a dark, Spanish-flavored track featuring guest vocals, in Spanish, by Amparo Sanchez. “Deep Down,” still somewhat more “rock” than we’ve come to expect, comes together excellently, leading into the French-sung “Nom de Plume,” reminiscent of Burns and Convertino’s work in ABBC. Closing ballad “All Systems Red” finds the sun going down over the Arizona desert again, blazing brilliantly, ending the album on a familiar note after keeping our attention diverted for the better part of an hour.
Most wouldn’t ordinarily call playing it straight a “risk,” yet that seems to be the case for Calexico. For a band that has always been fairly unconventional, making a proper folk-rock album may actually leave some scratching their heads. The confusion wears off quickly, however, while a damn fine set of gorgeous indie folk, such as this, only becomes increasingly rewarding over time.