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Garden Ruin
Touch and Go/Quarterstick Records

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 Amparo Sanchez.

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 innumerable listens.

-Tracy M. Rogers

Track List:
1. Cruel
2. Yours and Mine
3. Bisbee Blue
4. Panic Open String
5. Letter to a Bowie Knife
6. Roka
7. Lucky Dime
8. Smash
9. Deep Down
10. Nom de Plume
11. All Systems Red

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