Banjos on a Calexico album? You bet. Only one mariachi song?
No problem. No instrumentals? Why not? Calexifans became comfortable
long ago with the notion that Calexico is an ever-changing, ever-growing,
multi-faceted musical entity (or should have, at least). Now, it's
time for the rest of the world to do the same. Joey Burns,
John Convertino, and company have become known in the alt-whatever
world as "that Ennio Morricone-inspired desert noir/mariachi
band from Tucson with the cool Victor Gastelum cover art,"
but Garden Ruin highlights the band's punk, rock, American
folk, and even pop tendencies while still drawing on international
musical influences. Gone, for the most part, are the border ballads,
replaced by personal narratives - some of which are even romantic
in nature - and increasingly political lyrics.
In true postmodern rock form, Calexico has created a richly textured
musical backdrop for Joey Burns' lyrics - a sound that is multi-dimensional
and employs numerous instruments without sounding heavy or over-produced.
All of this is somehow enigmatically separate from Burns' vocals which
hover at the front of the mix for the most part - at times a whisper,
at others a wail - lending a personal feel to Garden Ruin.
Perhaps the prime example of this is the French-language "Nom
de Plume" - a dark, spoken-word narrative of death and destruction
set to no less that three guitars, accordion, and Martin Wenk's
sinister banjo. Likewise, "Roka (Danza de la Muerte)" features
four guitars, including the stellar baritone work of the band's pedal
steel player Paul Niehaus; both Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela
on trumpet; guest musicians Eldys Isak Vega and Nick Luca
on piano and B3, respectively; and at least three kinds of percussion
by Convertino and the band's soundman Jelle Kuiper. Named for
the café in Bisbee, Arizona, where the band practiced in preparation
for making Garden Ruin, "Roka" is a thinly veiled
discourse on border crossing in the Sonoran desert by Mexican emigres
- the only true "border ballad" on the entire disc, in fact
- which includes a seductive Spanish-language chorus sung by the inimitable
Of the English-language pieces, standout tracks abound. "Cruel"
begins with an ominous classical guitar intro before kicking up into
a full-fledged pop-rock number with lyrics about the devastation -
both environmental and in terms of human life - wrought by the Bush
administration. "Bisbee Blue" is another pop tune with an
environmental bent - this time with folk and country influences mixed
in and lyrics aimed at urban sprawl and the depletion of natural resources.
Oddly, "Bisbee Blue" doubles as a love song of sorts, giving
it rather joyous musical and lyrical appeal. "Lucky Dime,"
by contrast, has the feel of a late '70s Steely Dan song, complete
with electric jazz guitar by the aforementioned Nick Luca and a concluding
bass melodica solo by Burns."Letter To A Bowie Knife" is
another marked contrast, with Burns mining his punk past and singing
about political and spiritual disillusionment, while "Deep Down"
is a three-chord pop-rock-meets-punk song about the evils of becoming
beholden to money, power, and fame. Remarkably, amid the genre changes
and musical shifts, only the rather anticlimactic, disenchanted love
song, "Smash," seems out of place.
In truth, Garden Ruin is probably Calexico's most heterogeneous
musical offering to date, yet the band manages to move seamlessly
through songs that are seemingly unrelated. Garden Ruin also
offers a deeper glimpse into Joey Burns' world view - a viewpoint
that has been hinted at in previous albums, but never to such an extent.
Although at times lyrically inscrutable, Garden Ruin is an
album of lush instrumentation and meaningful verses that begs for
-Tracy M. Rogers
2. Yours and Mine
3. Bisbee Blue
4. Panic Open String
5. Letter to a Bowie Knife
7. Lucky Dime
9. Deep Down
10. Nom de Plume
11. All Systems Red
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