Review Summary: A good album and an improvement on 2005's 'Garden Ruin', but not as good as it could have been, sounding a bit like it's stuck between Calexico's early cinematic and atmospheric rock and newer poppier sound
When deciding on a band name, Calexico really made an excellent choice. Named after a Californian town on the Mexico/America border, itself a mixture of the words ‘California’ and ‘Mexico’, ‘Calexico’ symbolised the blending of Mexican and American cultures and music. This was a formula that the band perfected with their unique fusion of traditional American folk and Mexican mariachi music, using both to create magnificent soundscapes that brought to mind images of driving through the desert.
2006’s ‘Garden Ruin’ saw Calexico, possibly influenced by their work with Iron & Wine, leaving their previous over-the-top and rich cinematic style and much of the Mexican influences, and replacing them with a more lo-fi, poppy and subdued, and unfortunately as a result, much less interesting, indie-folk style. This change was very unpopular with much of their fan base, so ‘Carried to Dust’, as the name implies, attempts to recapture the striking Spaghetti Western atmosphere that made Calexico so good in the first place.
The problem is that Calexico seem reluctant to leave their new minimalistic style, and don’t quite succeed in capturing the atmosphere of their earlier albums like ‘Feast of Wire’ with it. ‘Feast of Wire’ used violins, trumpets, accordions and all sorts of instruments over sparse drumming and epic vast sweeping pedal steel guitar soundscapes to create the desert atmosphere, and mixed together influences from jazz to country music, but the simplified structure here doesn’t quite give the atmosphere enough room to grow. 1991’s ‘The Black Light’ was also quite minimalistic compared to ’Feast of Wire’ but the dark and bleak mood that was present in it is missing here completely.
The Mariachi element does make a slight return, but now feels forced and maybe even a bit gimmicky. The horns are downplayed, hidden away to small sections of a few songs, and the album opener ‘Victor Jara's Hands’ and ‘Inspiracion’ contain some brief singing in Spanish, to add to Joey Burn’s whispery vocals.
As a result, this album feels stuck in the middle of the two styles - not atmospheric enough for their old style and just about poppy enough for the new one to be really successful. Saying that, there are some gems on here. The album starts fantastically. ‘Victor Jara’s Hands’ for example, is a folk song of absolute beauty, and ‘Two Silver Trees’ is a pretty ballad with a great melody, though admittedly not a lot more.
Unfortunately there are a lot of songs that just don’t work. The filler tracks appear around the middle of the album, so it becomes easy to have lost interest in the album by the end. At times it can be slightly surprising like the lively ‘Man Made Lake’ complete with distorted guitar, a country song, ‘Slowness’ and the guest vocals in ‘Inspication’ (Iron & Wine, Pieta Brown and Tortoise bassist Doug McCombs all make appearances) but it’s not enough to keep the album consistently interesting. There is a lack of the experimentation found in previous Calexico releases and except for a saxophone on part of one of the best tracks, ‘Bend In the Road’, no jazz songs that the band once excelled in.
‘Carried to Dust’ contains just enough change to prevent it from sounding the same as a million other indie-folk bands of the sort that Calexico used to tower over, albeit a bit better than most. It’s a step in the right direction for Calexico after ‘Garden Ruin’, but not far enough.