Garden Ruin – Calexico
The Calexico aesthetic is as well defined as any other indie act, yet
— like so many other acts — they have escaped categorization. Which can
be good or bad. Perhaps this has been a catalyst for the change in
focus we see here. Categories can be a good thing if they don't
pigeonhole a band into an inescapable corner. With Garden Ruin, I am
happy to report, Calexico have emerged unscathed.
As a band known more for its instrumentals (there are none here)
and overall vibe than for the songs themselves, crafting a mainstream
album of rock, pop, and folk songs could have been a foot in the
grave. Luckily that's not the case. The only thing that might hinder
us warming up to a newly focused Calexico is the fact that, in the
past, the band's fantastic instrumentals shifted the listener's
attention to worlds that reside only in the mind – a reprieve where
Calexico helps guides us on our own journey. Moments of vast,
sprawling vistas of shimmering darkness and warm winds blowing across
the desert sand with Calexico serving as the backing soundtrack are
now replaced by a more literal experience. The focus of Garden Ruin
hinders that more abstract journey but that's all right — we now have
a band that knows the way and they want to lead us there.
From the opening guitar lines of "Cruel," which shuffles and rolls us
into the Garden gracefully with a familiar tinge of horns and pedal
steel, Calexico shows us they are now a catchier, less nuanced band.
With the beautifully forlorn "Yours and Mine" and "Bisbee Blue," a
bittersweet lullaby filled with cellos and banjo plucks, we are
whisked away and there's no coming back. We are in a new and beautiful
territory. The teeter-tottering melodies on "Panic Open String" are
simply mesmerizing, and illustrate, perhaps better than any other
track, Joey Burns' firm grasp on the idea that a mesmerizing sound can be
the simplest and most fragile of melodies, floating along, ready to
fall apart at any moment. His voice is simply intriguing — emotive without being too earnest and his breathy howl is among the
more nuanced and enticing in music. A radio-ready "Letter To Bowie
Knife," along with "Deep Down" both put the pedal to the floor and are
the evidence of a newfound earnestness to rock. With the closer, "All
Systems Red," the band goes out with a loud, tormented bang, with
Convertino drumming such a massive sound, we feel shaken.
An impressive evolution in songwriting for leader Joey Burns has made
the band more compelling and undeniably more successful with Garden
Ruin. The production is less atmospheric and sparse, but more crisp,
heavy and layered — spot on for the songs, which are more mature,
distinct and full than past efforts. Layered vocal textures, big
drums, cutting horns, and electric guitars that pierce and pummel the
ears make this record feel less like a walk through the desert and
more akin to a night out in a Southwestern city.
Calexico have dived into a new place that, thankfully, still resides
in the familiar and strange desert landscape we have grown to love.
This time, the landscape is buoyed by a narrative which, like good
song writing does, lets our imagination wander a little bit. Joey
Burns has maintained his sense of place, and in the process of
maturing into a truly compelling songwriter, brings that wisdom to
(hopefully) a wider audience.
This is an incredibly balanced and focused album, it maintains a grip
on their past while meshing it with a new pop aesthetic, almost
seamlessly. In the background, or perhaps after the record is finished
spinning, we hear the familiar resonance of the Southwest landscape.
As in the desert, Calexico have embraced the fact that time has the
capacity to sculpt and transform things into new and beautiful forms.
Things may change, but the spirit remains the same.