Calexico - Garden Ruin

As the first vocal strains of “Cruel” began to play, I wondered for a minute if I had placed the wrong album into my CD player. The gentle, uplifting strains of tenderly plucked guitar coupled with a political message about environmental destruction were more reminiscent of the Jayhawks, a la Hollywood Town Hall, than Calexico. Yet as mariachi style trumpets began to blare in harmony, I once again felt at ease with the familiar southwestern-flavored melodies that have come to define the band’s previous records. Garden Ruin is Calexico’s official fifth album to date, their most musically diverse, and in my opinion, their absolute best.

Calexico have long been lauded for their ability to combine unusual instruments (banjo ukelele, electric mandolin) with atypical genres (spaghetti western, mariachi) to create a sound that is both reminiscent of the southwest and yet still otherworldly. On Garden Ruin, Calexico once again showcase their signature sound, yet make a point to pay homage to their musical influences. The result: an album that illuminates the vast range and scope of this talented band, yet still feels endearingly familiar.

The band started out with two musicians – Joey Burns (vocals/ guitar) and John Convertino (percussion) - who originally intended Calexico to serve as a side project to their experimental rock group, Giant Sand. The band became official in 1996, when first album, Spoke, was recorded in Burns’ home studio. Combining elements of jazz, folk, country, mariachi, and electronics, the duo grew to incorporate a bevy of talented instrumentalists: Paul Niehaus (pedal steel, guitar), Jacob Venezuela (keys, trumpet, vibes), Martin Wenk (accordian, guitar, synth, trumpet, vibes), and Volker Zander (upright & electric bass). Calexico have maintained their cooperative, kibitz-like vibe by collaborating on a number of side ventures including a recent album with Iron & Wine and recordings with Neko Case and Nancy Sinatra. Eschewing the “slave-to-fashion” ethic that has become the trend in music today, Calexico remain dedicated to the joy of creating intensely complex, yet extraordinarily catchy music.

After showcasing a Jayhawks-with-a-twist sound on “Cruel,” Calexico move on to the sweetly simple (and clearly influenced by former tour-mates, Wilco), “Yours and Mine.” The album continues along with gentle, whispered melodies, the highlight of said quieter fare being, “Panic Open String.” Beginning as a gentle lullaby and then transforming into a ballad about road trips, longing for times past, and the simple beauty of the cityscape, “Panic” provides an introduction to the uplifting, rock-heavy half of the record.

“Letter to Bowie Knife” abandons Ennio Morricone-flavored jams for pure rock, and “Deep Down,” a definitive album standout, converts anti-war messages into a driving, infectious indie-rock anthem. “Nom de Plume, ” takes Calexico back to their roots with a peculiar melody line plucked on banjo, maracas stirring in the background, and all-French lyrics spoken in a gruff, imposing whisper. It is an apparent homage to French songstress, Marianne Dissard, who previously sang on the band’s third album, Hot Rail, and who features original lyrics by Burns on her most recent album.

The absolute stand-out track from Garden Ruin is also perhaps the greatest departure for the band: album closer, “All Systems Red.” Calexico are masters of creating a true sonic journey – developing a clear and memorable beginning and end while keeping all of the true action nestled in between. “All Systems” begins gently, quietly lamenting the changes created by the conservative movement sweeping the country. It neatly wraps up the previous themes of songs two through eleven in a few simple verses, yet as soon as you become comfortable, it grabs you by the ear and jerks you into a driving, reverb- filled bridge. Burns’ typically quiet, plaintive tenor becomes a forceful, emotive tool as he struggles to be heard over a swirling crescendo of guitar and bass. “I wanna tear it all down and build it up again!” he screams. And with that, the albums ends with a rush of exhausted strings and a death-march drum-roll.

The best way I can sum up this wonderful album is with these two words: “intensely satisfying.” I have long been a fan of Calexico’s unusual style and eclectic influences, but sometimes their urge to experiment just doesn’t work for me. In attempts to be different, they become un-listenable, or in order to cling to their dusty “southwestern story-teller” image, begin to sound ho-hum. On Garden Ruin, however, Calexico revealed that they are unafraid to break though all genre boundaries, and have, as a result, crafted an album of nothing but well-structured, catchy, intensely satisfying melodies.

--Courtney Wachs

Release Date: April 11, 2006

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