Calexico – Carried To Dust

Carried To Dust

Taking into account all of Calexico’s album-based output – including the half-dozen tour/mail-order CDs alongside the ‘official’ studio quintet released via Quarterstick and City Slang – Joey Burns and John Convertino have crossed an awful lot of sonic territory over the last ten or so years. From quixotic lo-fi experimentation (1997’s Spoke and 2001’s Aerocalexico), through artful atmospherics (2000’s Hot Rail and Travelall), via kaleidoscopic storytelling (1998’s The Black Light and 2003’s Feast of Wire) and on to politically-charged Crazy Horse folk-rock (2006’s Garden Ruin), Burns, Convertino and multiple accomplices have represented the Americana world on its most artistically ambitious, adaptable and sociable frontiers. But with such great ground coverage is the almost unspoken responsibility to deliver a fresh dimension at each significant recorded step. Evidently with Garden Ruin, Burns and Convertino had seemingly pushed-out the Calexico sound as far it could sustain itself convincingly, meaning that last year’s lovely low-key Toolbox long-player felt like Burns and Convertino revisiting their ‘dynamic duo’ ways in an attempt to rewrite some of the group’s core programming. It seemed logical then, that this sixth ‘mainstream’ Calexico release, Carried To Dust, should be a more peeled-back and less-democratic affair; which it is and it isn’t. Instead of possessing a decisive sense of direction, Carried To Dust finds Calexico somewhat in the grip of a mini-personality-crisis, that threatens but ultimately fails to cripple the band with conflicting personas.

On one level, the album has a laudable rebuilt-from-the-floorboards-up feel, with Burns and Convertino focused on nailing-down an elaborate narrative – based around the travelogue of a fictional striking Hollywood script-writer – with a subtle and often serene sense of directorial restraint. On another strata though, the gregarious collaborative nature of the twosome’s creativity, both inside and outside the wider Calexico line-up, seems to have been too hard to completely let go of.

In the latter respect, a handful of songs just seem to stick out like swollen body parts, as if they have been added-on to either bolster the group’s storming live sets with more Mariachi party-pieces or because some less-hardy fans might have been offended by a more dramatic volte-face. Hence, the opening “Victor Jara’s Hand” feels like a forced flashback to the carnivalesque Latin corners of Feast of Wire, with Jairo Zavala’s guest-singing drowning-out Burns’s more distinctive tones. More ill-fitting is “Inspiración” – with co-lead vocals from Amparo Sanchez and regular live trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela – which comes across as a tokenistic anaesthetic-free transplant from Buena Vista Social Club. The timidity to strip things back to a smaller operation also truncates a couple of promising Burns/Convertino-only instrumental interludes – namely “Sarabande in Pencil Form” and “Falling From Sleeves” – which might well have benefited from a little lengthier stretching.

But the presence of a few weak tracks doesn’t mean the full derailment of an otherwise impressive and assured collection of Calexico material. After the false-start of the aforementioned “Victor Jara’s Hand”, the spine-tingling “Two Silver Trees” really leaves a subliminally spooky mark and the strings/brass-soaked evocation of “The News About William” – previously heard in more minimalist and wordless form on Toolbox – is mesmerising. Elsewhere, new stylistic turns, like the twisted wah-wah funk shapes of “Fractured Air (Tornado Watch)”, sit comfortably next to well-disclosed old tricks, which are most emphatically re-displayed on the cinematic cowboy romp of “El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited)”. Furthermore, where ‘hired-in’ musicians are employed with firmer supervision, the results are far more cohesive. The lolling country stroll of “Slowness” benefits from Burns duetting with Canadian songstress Pieta Brown and Sam Beam’s delicate backing-whispers on “House of Valparaiso” pleasantly recalls the stronger cuts from 2005’s joint Iron And Wine and Calexico mini-album, In The Reins. Deeper into the studio mix, other adroit contributors add key components. The ethereal “Red Blooms” undoubtedly owes a great debt to the blurring mesh of Craig Schumacher’s lap steel and Paul Niehaus’s pedal steel; the closing “Contention City” clearly profits from the eerie guitar washes of Thrill Jockey ambassador Doug McCombs; and the gnarly climax of the Garden Ruin-flavoured “Man Made Lake” wouldn’t bite so hard without Niehaus’s fuzz-guitar mangling erupting against the shimmering interplay of Jairo Zavala’s vibraphone and Martin Wenk’s glockenspiel.

Carried To Dust is perhaps a hard Calexico LP to truly fall in love with. Its occasional awkwardness and complex narrative arc may deter true devotion. However, there are still many miraculous highpoints within, which should give Joey Burns and John Convertino a sturdier and braver platform for Calexico to step-up from next time around.