In Brief: It’s good “mellow road trip” music, if you’re not prone to falling asleep at the wheel. Unfortunately, the band seems to fall asleep at the wheel on a few tracks.
A few years back, my budding interest in the one-man indie folk band Iron & Wine led me to discover another interesting band through an artistic collaboration on the EP In the Reins. In just a brief half hour of music, the two artists managed to tromp all over the Southern reaches of the United States and perhaps even peek over the border, combining the folksy sounds of Jim Beam‘s usual tales of life and twisted morality in the Deep South with the sun-drenched, desert soundscape of “alternative county” band Calexico. I was thrilled by the little bits of Spanish influence, the mariachi-styled horn section, and the “softest jam band in the world” angle that seemed to permeate many of those songs, so I told myself I’d check out a Calexico album at some point, to see if I liked ’em without Beam around. Despite the band putting out an album called Garden Ruin at around that time, I never got to it, and it was three years later before my curiosity came back around. It couldn’t have come at a better time. I was reminded of their music while on a trip up the central coast of California, and Calexico seems to write the kind of songs that were designed for a relaxed, meandering road trip off into some sparsely populated part of the country.
As usual when trying out a new band, I like to start with the latest, so 2008’s Carried to Dust seemed like a good starting point. Shoot, the album cover even had a drawing of a woman behind the wheel of a car, driving off into what may well have been oblivion. It was practically calling my name. Inside, I found a collection of largely understated songs, many hinting at their south-of-the-border influence but only a couple daring to cross the line into “Latin music”, while others played around with the “Spaghetti Western” style and a few more easygoing country ballads popped up. A few instrumental tracks rounded out the list – this was apparently one of Calexico’s strengths back in the day, but something that they had largely abandoned in later years. I could see both the pros and cons of that. But it helped to add to the variety, which is always a helpful thing on a largely down-tempo album. Carried to Dust ended up being the kind of CD that I’d often reach for very late at night, not to put me to sleep, but as something to soothe raw nerves and also to spark imagination as I plotted out future expeditions to explore the rest of my home state. (Yeah, I’m a bit of a road trip junkie.)
Looking deeper into Calexico’s music, I’ve found a sense of unrest beneath what might seem like a chilled-out spring break soundtrack on the surface. Much like Iron & Wine, the band’s songs seem to be tales about drifters, criminals, jilted lovers, small-town revolutionaries, and other rural denizens just trying to get by. Sometimes they find peace. Sometimes they wander about aimlessly. The lyrics are often obscure (occasionally bordering on minimalist poetry) to the point where you can make up your own stories to fit the abstract descriptions. In truth, each is probably inspired by something deeper than what I can parse by scanning the lyrics, but they don’t need to come with a road map to lead me to interesting places.
If there’s a downside to Calexico’s celebration of slowness, it’s that lead singer Joey Burns has the whole whisper-singing delivery (another trait Iron & Wine is well known for) down to a science, almost to the point where you could accuse Calexico of being ominous and little else. The band seems to follow suit as far as this restrained approach is concerned, with quite a few tracks on the record seeming like they’re building up to something but never getting there. The effect is much like hearing someone hint over and over that they know a secret, but not telling you what it is. Given the amount of instrumental talent that seems to exist within Calexico’s ranks, this is a bit frustrating – to know they have a “boil” setting but prefer to keep it on “simmer” most of the time. Burns can sing passionately when he wants to. Drummer John Convertino – the band’s other cornerstone member – can accentuate a track with interesting rhythms when he wants to. A number of guest vocalists also help to add a little spice. And the occasional horn or guitar solo shows a bit of inspiration. But there are almost as many tracks that seem to be long dirt roads to nowhere, despite seeming interesting at first. Calexico knows how to texture the opening of a song to grab my interest, but they’re hit-and-miss when it comes to following through on that initial promise. That’s the biggest weakness that shows thrugh on an otherwise exquisite album that is appropriately difficult to classify.
1. Victor Jara’s Hands
Wire fences still coiled with flowers of the night
Songs of the birds like hands call the earth to witness
Sever from fear before taking flight…
The album starts in fine fashion, paying homage to the band’s South-of-the-border influences by way of a haunting anthem about a Chilean singer/songwriter who was murdered for his beliefs during a political coup. The song only refers to Jara’s story obliquely – in truth, I don’t really know what it’s about, but I know that it’s beautifully performed, with Latin-styled percussion and gentle acoustic guitars building into a chorus that chugs along like a freight train, its cries of “Ole, ole” dovetailing nicely with the twin trumpet fanfare provided by the band’s horn section (Jacob Valenzuela and Martin Wenk) to create the song’s central hook. Jairo Zavala, who allmusic.com tells me is the vocalist from the Spanish band Depedro, shows up here to sing the second verse in its native tongue, and while my Spanish isn’t sharp enough to interpret all of it, it’s beautiful and heartbreaking all the same. The only drawback to this otherwise fine song is that Joey Burns‘s English vocals are buried underneath the trumpets during the chorus, which makes the main lyrical thrust of the song easy to miss.
2. Two Silver Trees
Branches falling down from sources underground
False identities stranded in each single seed…
This lush, quiet song seems to be a bit of a left turn for Calexico, opting for an ominous, moody chord progression accentuated by the otherwordly sound of a “guizeng”. I don’t exactly know what that instrument it is, but it sounds vaguely Chinese. Some sort of a harp or zither or something of that nature. The fusion of Asian and Latin elements is arresting, and it adds an aura of mystery to this hushed ballad which could be about a clandestine love affair, or a marriage of convenience arranged by two powerful dyansties, or an eldery couple living out their final days together, or some sort of political espionage, or… I don’t know. My brain keeps coming up with stories but none of them fully work with the eivdence I’m given in the lyrics. Not understanding doesn’t equate to not loving, though, as this is my favorite track on the album. Joey’s hushed approach works to the band’s favor here because you get the feeling that he’s whispering a deep, dark secret to you.
3. The News About William
Connecting the dots with thorns in his side
Boarded up the windows with pain and with pride
The music box broken that once was his soul
Its sad little song spinning out of control…
While I’ve never actually heard the Spanish style of romantic ballad called a “bolero”, that’s the word that comes to mind when I hear this song, which is chock full of triplets played on the acoustic guitar, giving it an exotic, slow-dance sort of feel. It’s also got a vaguely tragic sort of mood to it, as Burns delivers one of his more impassioned vocal performances, singing about a man who slowly drifted away into nothingness while the people around him were completely oblivious. A dramatic string section accentuates this brief tune with just the right amount of drama.
4. Sarabande in Pencil Form
This interlude is kind of useless – it’s a very slow drum march accompanied by a bit of noodling on the acoustic guitar. It doesn’t go anywhere and fades out in under a minute.
5. Writer’s Minor Holiday
Wasted on the weekend, making good time with my excuse
Where the plot lines are like dead ends
Floating in her eyes at the bottom of a well
Floating in her eyes, ride it out for a spell…
I feel like this track is meant to be one of the album’s cornerstones – it’s got a driving acoustic rhythm and an “epic story” sort of feeling to it at the outset. But try as I might, I can’t quite latch on to this oblique, metaphorical tale of a man going away to find inspiration for whatever novel or screenplay he seems to be working on. It feels like the song is all lead-up and no payoff, with its little stabs of electric guitar and Joey’s vocals only occasionally leaping out of the stereo at any volume beyond “ironic whisper”. There’s no hook here – no melody that stands out above the flat desert landscape, and no chorus or identifiable refrain to speak of.
6. Man Made Lake
Then I’ll gather the leaves from cell phone trees
And return them to their place
And pretend someone’s calling for me…
The band keeps things downbeat, tense, and mildly ironic on this tune which seems to echo the mold of its previous song at first, the acoustic guitar and Jacob Valenzuela’s keyboards only barely constructing a melodic base for the rest of the band to work from. But Burns has a little bit more texture to his voice here, once again painting around the edges of a story with vague but interesting metaphors about artifically created things made to look natural. Suddenly, what seemed gentle and barely there leaps out of the stereo midway through the song as one of the guitarists lays on a bit of distorted and dissonant electric feedback, which carries on pretty much all the way through to the end. It’s an interesting exercise in constrasting textures.
Mirame, que estoy aquí
Si pudieras mirarme que pensaras de mi
Pero hoy es muy tarde para decirte que estoy cambiado
Me duele, me duele, que ya no estas aquí…
Here Calexico fully indulges their Latin side, cranking up what sounds like a Farfisa organ while John Convertino scrapes out a tango-like rhythm that for some reason makes me think of spiders. (What’s the corrugated wooden thing called that you run a stick across to make a rattling sort of sound? It sounds like he’s got one of those.) You can almost picture a couple doing a vaguely sensual dance, long-stemmed roses in their mouths, as a male and female vocalist engage in a bit of lyrical flirtation, entirely in Spanish. (The female voice is Amparo Sanchez; I can’t tell if the male is one of the band members or not. It’s doesn’t sound like Burns unless he’s really got his Spanish accent down.) It’s an unusual but memorable ballad, and for this one I tried to restrain myself from looking up a translation for as long as I could stand, opting to let my limited Spanish vocabulary pick up enough bits and pieces to get the vague idea that this was a “too little, too late” kind of song about a match that seemed right but the timing being all wrong.
8. House of Valparaiso
Lying in the bath fully clothed, ready for the ocean’s wake
The tears won’t wash away what her eyes can’t erase…
Well, Calexico served as the backing band for an entire Iron & Wine EP, so I guess it was high time for Jim Beam (who essentially is Iron & Wine) to return the favor. He shows up here to trade off vocals with Burns, and I wouldn’t blame you for missing him entirely – he seems almost crammed into the background, as if his lyrics are meant to be printed in parenthesis, barely fitting in between each line that Burns sings. The two are practically having a whispering contest! The song almost feels a bit rushed, like an afterthought in between better songs, but once again, I’m a sucker for the light click-clack of the Latin-inflected percussion, the rich acoustic guitar work, and the mariachi-style trumpets. One of the old California missions is just down the street from where I live; this song feels like it could be the soundtrack to an afternoon spent exploring it.
If I never told you how you helped to rescue
The car and all inside
Remember roads were steep and you and I went sliding
Down the grade from Gate’s Pass…
These guys sure like their duets – this track marks three in a row that feature a guest vocalist. This time around it’s Pieta Brown, who appears to be decidedly “north of the border” in her vocal approach – this is a country song through and through, and an unabashedly easygoing one at that. (You’d think a band would be just asking to get made fun of by critics for actually writing a song that highlights their love for “slowness”. Fortunately, this is a really good song, so I don’t have to go there.) With gentle, syncopated guitar chords and the sweet whine of Paul Niehaus‘s steel guitar, Burns and Brown, whose voices are understated but work together quite beautifully, find joy in a road trip halted by a lost hubcap, which leads them into a field in the dead of night and forces them to stop and take a gander at the still wonder of the dark sky. It’s the kind of song that represents everything you want to get away from when you live in a big city that is too bright and/or smoggy to see stars. It’s the antithesis of a fast-paced, busy life. And it serves as a kind of unofficial mission statement for Calexico as a band – they like to see if they can make you slow down and observe the little details you might otherwise have missed.
10. Bend to the Road
Following those signs, driving out
Only engine smoke frozen in a cloud
Wishing the space would remain…
Much like “Writer’s Minor Holiday”, this one starts out sounding like it’s going somewhere dangerous or haunting or otherwise intriguing, only to turn out to have a lot of steam and no fire. The moody, spaghetti-Western style guitar intro, when paired with Convertino’s subtle but effective jazz drumming, seems to suggest a slow build to something with a lot of zing… but it never manages to get there. Burns spends most of the song trying to whisper at a hint of a fraction of an idea, and I never thought it was possible for a singer to be obnoxiously subtle until now. By the end of the song I’m thinking, “Just complete the damn thought and get on with it already!”
11. El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited)
Here’s a much needed breath of fresh air, and a rare up-tempo track form Calexico that seems to have some oomph behind it. I’m fine with subtlety being their default mode, but every now and then a band needs to let loose, which they do here by expanding the previous track’s “outlaw” mood into a full blown instrumental jam with lively horns, flamenco-style guitars and percussion, and a pair of solos, one on the electric guitar and the other one being whistled. Now that’s just plain cool. If you could surf in the desert, this would be the soundtrack.
12. Fractured Air (Tornado Watch)
Corrugated lovers sweeping on a wire
Switching on and off the breakers
On a night like this, no one should be alone…
Keeping the momentum going from the previous track (OK, so for Calexico that means “mid-tempo”) is this scatterbrained ode to the sticky, humid feeling in the air that tells you a storm’s a-brewin’ and that you’d better hunker down in the basement with someone you care about. Convertino owns this track, laying down a steamy rhythm which may seem lacking at first due to a bit of laxity in the tempo of the song (maybe it’s just an illusion, but when Burns starts singing it appears to slow down a bit), slowly building up the temperature of the song from warm to spicy when he squares off with the horn section at the end. The rest of the band forms a sparse lattiecwork around him – just a bit of acoustic guitar and some other sound effects, but for the most part, the drum kit is the lead instrument. This one’s fun, despite Burns’s chorus being a bit weak.
13. Falling From Sleeves
A final instrumental interlude shows up here, which manages to be vaguely pretty with its triple meter and its delicate dance between an acoustic guitar and what I think sounds like a cello. I kind of wish they’d completed this musical thought, but then again, the album’s getting a bit long as it is.
14. Red Blooms
Where strangers plant themselves
Dead souls of the underground
When February thaws
Snow drops will be in bloom again…
Other than one of the few appearances of piano that I can recall throughout the entire album, I have trouble coming up with much to say about this, the penultimate track. It strikes me as unremarkable in every sense of the word, its slow rhythm marching off into nowhere and its midly curious lyrics seeming to all trail off into elliptical thoughts that aren’t fully enunciated. The structure feels like “verse, verse, verse, verse, really weak vamp”. I figure you should only vamp at the end of a song when you’ve got some sort of a solid musical hook to ruminate on as the band jams for a bit. Calexico seems to have trouble understanding that repeating minute sublteties at the end of a song doesn’t make them intrisnically interesting or memorable.
15. Contention City
Through miles of waste to cross upstream
Risking all dreams for what the surface brings
Free like the flow that pours from your hand
Claiming its own new river…
Oh hey, and speaking of trailing off into nowhere… this closing song, if it could even formally be called a “song”, is perhaps the most infuriating example of Calexico’s unfortunate tendency to start off with something mildly interesting and then follow it down a dull rabbit hole into oblivion. Doug McCombs of the experimental indie rock band Tortoise helped to either compose or perform this one – I have no idea what role he plays, since there are no vocals besides the minimal lyrics that Burns just barely breathes in the first half of the song. The only significant instrumental constributions I hear are electronic keyboards, wandering about in minor key, and Convertino tapping out what sounds like the most cautious rhythm imaginable. this wouldn’t be a bad setup if it led somewhere, but barely two minutes into the song, it wanders off into a few minutes of nothing but gentle cymbal tapping and eerie background ambience. I’m all for experimentation, but there’s more promise than payoff to this particular experiment, and it’s kind of annoying to me that an album loaded with 15 tracks seems to stop being worth listening to after track 12.
While the mostly strong songs clustered near the album’s beginning and middle are enough to keep me spinning this album whenever I need to complement a mellow mood, I can’t help but get the nagging feeling that Calexico has probably recorded more definitive statements than those presented on this often elliptical record. It would probably be worth digging into their back catalogue a bit to find out. But Carried to Dust wasn’t a terrible place for me to start as a new fan, and I do look forward to seeing how the band will continue to blur national and musical boundaries on future albums.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Victor Jara’s Hands $1.50
Two Silver Trees $2
The News About William $1
Sarabande in Pencil Form $0
Writer’s Minor Holiday $.50
Man Made Lake $1
House of Valparaiso $1
Bend to the Road $.50
El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited) $1.50
Fractured Air (Tornado Watch) $1
Falling from Sleeves $.50
Red Blooms $0
Contention City $0
Joey Burns: Lead vocals, guitars
John Convertino: Drums and Percussion
Paul Niehaus: Steel guitar
Jacob Valenzuela: Keyboards, trumpet, vibraphone
Martin Wenk: Accordion, guitar, synthesizers, trumpet, vibraphone, harmonica
Volker Zander: Upright bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.