Calexico - Garden Ruin
Garden Ruin, the fifth studio album (excluding the multitude of collaborations and tour-only releases) from Calexico, marks a musical departure for the Tuscon, Arizona based six-piece. Named after a town that is literally split in two by the California-Mexico border, their previous four releases have largely focused on the impact of cultural and economic collision on the lives of individuals in this region. This is represented musically in their fusion of American folk and alternative country with traditional Latin styles.
On their critically acclaimed 2003 release Feast of Wire, they expanded their sound, incorporating jazz, swelling, cinematic strings and ambient noise to create an album that managed to stylistically jump around but remained cohesive thanks in part to Joey Burns’ rich vocals and John Convertino’s evocative, versatile drumming. Convertino comments on the DVD that accompanies the special edition of Garden Ruin that on Feast of Wire, Burns would “try to sneak in a pop song, and I’d try to play the beat but I just couldn’t do it…The beat just felt like lead. But on this album I’m ready to play the beat”. Feast of Wire’s more structurally traditional moments turned out to be some of its highlights, with the stunning ‘Quattro’ and folky ‘Not Even Stevie Nicks’. On Garden Ruin, Calexico have scaled back their widescreen sound: there are no instrumentals or experimental noise passages, and apart from album highlight ‘All Systems Red’, all of the tracks clock in at under five minutes. The influence of foreign cultures still remains (especially on the brooding, dual-language ‘Roka’), but mostly this aspect of their music is subtly infused into a more mainstream folk-rock style.
Take opening track ‘Cruel’ as an example: its opening bars make it clear that the emphasis is on the ‘California’ part of their sound, with rapid acoustic finger-picking creating the necessary pace to convey the desperation in lyrics like “Torturous ways/ Whisper from the grave/ A slow spun song of distortion”. It is only at the dramatic high point of the song that the Latin influence comes to the fore, with a short burst of Mariachi horns accompanying Burns’ haunting harmonies. His is a voice that has become richer and more versatile with age, and his time collaborating with Sam Beam (Iron & Wine) seems to have influenced his vocals on ‘Panic Open String’, which is sung in a fragile, whispered fashion until Convertino’s drums whirl up like a storm and the fire returns to his voice.
The most revelatory and dramatic moments on Garden Ruin come when Calexico take a more direct approach to creating tension and atmosphere. Distorted guitars and a classic rock beat are mixed with swirling cello on ‘Deep Down’, while the impassioned vocals and immediacy of alt. country foot-stomper ‘Letter to Bowie Knife’ mark it out as instant favourite. As great as these moments are however, they pale in comparison to album closer ‘All Systems Red’, one of the greatest songs in Calexico’s oeuvre and a moment that feels like it has been a long time coming. Lyrically, Burns moves away from the politics of the South and paints in broader strokes that hint at the paranoia and desperation felt across contemporary America, referencing Bob Dylan’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’ and how distant they feel to him now. He suggests that in order for these chimes to be heard again, change needs to come. He wants to “tear it all down and build it up again”; a sentiment I’m sure many people will sympathise with. Of course, these powerful words would be nothing without the right accompaniment. Fortunately, ‘All Systems Red’ is the highpoint of Calexico’s experiments with the quiet/loud dynamic on the album, starting out hushed and building to one of the most stunning, epic climaxes I’ve heard in a long time. It stands as proof that forty years after the vogue for protest singers, there is still a need for music charged with political commentary, especially when it’s as eloquent and spine-tingling as this.
Moving away from the experimentation that characterised their earlier work was always going to be a risk for Calexico, but for the most part it pays off. The short, simple bursts of folk ‘Bisbee Blue’ and ‘Yours and Mine’ aren’t particularly groundbreaking and neither track stands out as a highlight, but they’re pleasant enough and coming early in the running order may help Garden Ruin serve as the ideal entry point for newcomers to Calexico. Their dusty, culturally diverse world is definitely one worth entering.