April 20, 2006

Gems and Ruins

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Hailing from the sandblasted desert of Tucson, indie collective Calexico have turned a neat trick. Over the last decade, Calexico, led chiefly by pals Joey Burns and John Convertino, have created their very own sub-genre. Titled “indie-mariachi” by critics and fans alike, Calexico’s fusion of jazz, country, blues, and rock created a dusty Tex-Mex sound that, like the surrounding desert cacti, was alternately delicate and prickly.

The troubled history of the Southwest always influenced Calexico’s grand narratives and operatic drama. Creating a seamless blend of Afro-Peruvian music, Wild West narratives, and Mexican oral tradition, they appropriated narratives from immigrants, Native Americans, and Southwest folklore and fashioned their own eccentric world populated by cowboys, gypsies, and witches.

Unfortunately, Calexico’s latest work, Garden Ruin, steers away from their previous multicultural style and towards the predominantly white acoustic guitar approach. Occasionally, this pared-down simplicity strikes gold (the downcast, melancholy beauty of “Yours and Mine”), but their new, classic-rock tactic sorely lacks the eclectic exuberance of previous work (the countrified “Bisbee Blue,” with its twangy banjo, is far too cutesy). Luckily, despite newer innovations, a few tracks are classic Calexico, like the pedal steel and chilling climax of “Smash” or powerful epic closer “All Systems Red.”

Calexico’s exploration of cultures is only briefly seen in Garden Ruins. With the exception of guest vocalist Amparo Sanchez on “Roka” and “Nom de Plume,” a bafflingly out-of-place track seductively whispered in French (which inevitably fails to create the sinister, carnivalesque atmosphere of fellow rockers Firewater or 16 Horsepower), Garden Ruin shows none of the non-Western influences that so heavily directed their trademark sound.

Furthermore, a lack of instrumentals, a common tactic used by Calexico in the past, also points to their new mainstream values. Drawing from more conventional indie stars, such as a Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams in “Yours and Mine,” dreamy Grandaddy falsettos and harmonies in “Panic Open String,” and the quirky Jon Brion-esque lilt of “Lucky Dime,” Calexico strive to establish themselves in the indie rock canon.

It’s a shame that Calexico’s recent side projects shine more strongly than Garden Ruin, like their longtime relationship with alt-country luminary Neko Case or their collaborative EP In The Reins with Southern lo-fi fixture Iron & Wine. Signed to Quarterstick Records, Calexico should continue to develop their highly idiosyncratic sound. Yet, forced by industry and demand to normalize their sound, Calexico now has a much stronger undercurrent of pop. Garden Ruin isn’t a complete sell-out by any means, and Burns and Convertino rather gracefully incorporate elements of conventional pop into their already specific sound. A rock-solid yet dull offering from one of the Southwest’s finest bands, Garden Ruin abandons their highly stylized, cinematic aesthetic for a more pared-down, guitar-oriented approach. Calexico was once cruelly dubbed on internet forum ILM as “Sammy Same-o and the Sametones.” After hearing Garden Ruin, I have no choice but to agree.

Archived article by Natasha Pickowicz