There is no band quite like Calexico. I suppose you could say Giant Sand is, what with Joey Burns and John Convertino being frequent collaborators with Howe Gelb. Yet in spite of that fact, few bands, Giant Sand included, occupy a sonic space in the same way that Calexico does. Their Southwestern-flavored folk-rock has made `Calexico’ a genre unto itself, with reverb-heavy guitars and Latin-flavored arrangements that echo across painted deserts and through ghost towns, over deserted highways and into cantinas. And within that open space, they’ve managed to pull off mariachi instrumentals, alt-country ballads, eerie pop songs and experimental exercises, all of which come off as uniquely Calexico.
In 2006, however, the Tucson, Ariz.-based band turned a corner away from their vast, atmospheric approach in favor of a fairly straightforward pop record in Garden Ruin. It was a decent enough record, but it was hard not to think that something was curiously absent, primarily the eclectic arrangements and dark mood. On Carried to Dust, the band’s sixth, Calexico hasn’t altogether abandoned writing accessible rock songs, but as opposed to those on Garden Ruin, they sound more like an extension of the singles and vocal tracks from 2003’s Feast of Wire, arguably the band’s best album.
A curiously comforting shuffle of drumstick taps and minor key acoustic guitar plucks start off album opener “Victor Jara’s Hands,” a song that seems to combine all of the band’s strengths up front. Latin brass accentuates the dusty, dramatic melody, which is carried to even greater effect by guest vocalist Jairo Zavala. “Two Silver Trees” shows off the band’s remarkable ability to transform a hushed, subtle track into a soaring anthem with a mesmerizing chorus. The sweeping, cinematic melody of “Writer’s Minor Holiday” is truly a thing of beauty, with haunting backup vocals and gorgeous strings, while “Man Made Lake” is ominous yet delicate in its juxtaposition of xylophone and ringing piano keys.
Old chum Sam Beam of Iron & Wine lends his soft and soothing vocals to the somewhat brighter “House of Valparaiso,” while “Bend to the Road,” with its spacious guitar riffs, seems to reflect a long travel along a winding desert highway. Yet just as the tone seems to soften, Burns, Convertino & Co. start kicking up some serious dust and tearing into some more intense and urgent tracks, starting with the Southwestern explosion of “El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited)”. “Fractured Air (Tornado Watch)” starts off subtly, but ultimately builds to a hard-driving groove, with wah-wah and horn interplay. “Falling From Sleeves” is slower, yet far darker and more funereal than anything else on the album, yet its brief progression gives way to the melancholy plinks of piano in “Red Blooms” and the swooning atmosphere of “Contention City.”
Considering it’s been a good five years since Feast of Wire was released, it’s been as much time since the band has offered up an album of its kind. Yet, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m grateful for the band’s forays into more traditional rock sounds. Most likely because of this, Calexico was able to harness their pop chops and apply them to their unique brand of desert rock. Carried to Dust is the sort of album the group has been building to, and a work of art upon which they can look back with pride.
MP3: “Two Silver Trees”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.