After years spent banging around the Giant Sand and Bonnaroo milieu, the members of Calexico are finally achieving some level of visibility in the larger indie-rock community. The band reached maximum exposure in 2007 with a smattering of appearances as the house band for the I’m Not There soundtrack. Now, Calexico has released a return to form after the straight rock of 2006’s Garden Ruin with Carried to Dust, an album that finds the band adhering to the Southwest vibes (and genres) of its earlier releases.
Like all Calexico records, Carried to Dust is preeminently concerned with representing a musical portrait of the American West. The songs are sprawling and desolate like the desert, and melodies sprout up like flowers through baked earth. The lilting “Two Silver Trees” is the album’s first highlight. Its plucky piano melody and intertwined guitars evoke images of water trickling and men on horses.
Iron & Wine man Sam Beam, a former Calexico collaborator (they worked together on 2005’s In the Reins), helps make the dusty mariachi “House of Valparaiso” all the more tender. “Fractured Air (Tornado Watch)” probably wouldn’t be mistaken for its weather-pattern namesake, but the song does lift and take off like debris. The album’s epic closer, “Contention City,” is the album’s most barren moment — a walk through a ghost town a hundred years after the residents packed up their belongings and moved on.
The devil is in the details for Calexico. The band has always been a “little”-things group. Carried to Dust’s production first comes off as pretty standard but reveals itself to be multileveled and dense: the harmonicas underneath the menace of the guitars on “Bend to the Road,” the impressively dexterous percussion on “El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited)” that provides grounding for guitar and trumpet solos, the provincial sounding trumpets on “Inspiracion.”
Carried to Dust isn’t a career-definer, or an album that’ll get many spins on modern-rock radio. While the return to straighter Old West soundscapes is welcome after Garden Ruin, Carried to Dust is really just another solid album from a band that’s made a career out of mining the genres of the Southwest. Calexico shows no signs of aesthetic stagnation or slowing down.