There’s something about the music being pumped out of the Southwest. Maybe it’s in the water, the vast open skies or the fact that people can actually afford to be creative in cities that don’t abduct their money before they’ve had a chance to earn it. Whatever the catalyst, groups hailing from Arizona and New Mexico tend to have a work ethic stronger than a trucker on speed. Like your typical hopped-up eighteen-wheeling Joe, Calexico has been making music for more than 10 years, not including Joey Burns and John Convertino’s time with Howe Gelb and Giant Sand. With the release of their fifth studio album, Garden Ruin, the members of Calexico show they have no plans of slowing down.
Since 2003’s mariachi thick Feast of Wire the boys of Calexico have been busy. Last year saw the Iron and Wine collaboration, In The Reins, as well as a solo album from Convertino. Using the downtime between their other projects and rigorous touring schedule, Burns and Convertino found some time to pen a few new tracks and explore the familiar yet un-traveled roads of their Southwest Americana sound. With the same band of musicians that played and toured with Burns and Convertino over the last three years, Calexico has become a bit more of a family. Even though Garden Ruin’s recording process witnessed more of a collaborative nature with the same band from Feast of Wire, the album’s direction is vastly different from its predecessor’s.
The constitution of Garden Ruin is a little more straightforward, with less experimentation and fewer cultural influences than the band usually employs. The music’s backbone is heavily infused with more standard rock mentalities and a touch of Americana to keep things understandable. The songwriting is just as strong as ever, with Burns and Convertino playing in darker subject matter and stronger political undertones: “Cruel, heartless reign/ Chasing short-term gains/ Right down to the warning signs” (“Cruel”). At times this rock approach to Garden Ruin’s songs has a cheapening effect, causing some of the songs to sound only a few steps away from the adult-alternative sound of the Wallflowers or the Counting Crows ( “Bisbee Blue”).
Despite the occasional moment when Garden Ruin sounds like a garden-variety alt-country-rock album, its moments of pure Calexico charm outweigh its missteps. Tracks such as “Letter to Bowie Knife” and “Roka (Danza de la Muerte)” represent the characteristic that sets Calexico apart from the common band: a sense of true conviction to push the boundaries of Americana music. Although Garden Rein is not the strongest display of Calexico’s power and creativity, it shows that Burns and Convertino have little interest in repeating the same thing old thing. That determination will have people such as me coming back for more.