There's always been intrigue and adventure at the heart of Calexico. Joey Burns and John Convertino have constantly imbued their music with an unparalleled sense of drama, calling upon the myths and iconography of the American West and its Spanish speaking neighbor Mexico. "Carried To Dust" represents the pinnacle of their achievement, a thrilling and moving journey through a landscape that draws upon the modern world as much as it does the decayed reminders of times past, stumbling upon unexpected delights whilst always moving forward with a pioneering sense of purpose.
Review by Heather Phares
From its beautiful, spray-painted stencil artwork (courtesy of longtime Calexico cover artist Victor Gastelum) to the sounds within it, Carried to Dust recalls previous Calexico high points like The Black Light and, especially, Feast of Wire. Considering that Joey Burns and John Convertino reunited with many of the Feast of Wire players for these songs, the similarities shouldn't come as a surprise -- nor should Calexico's skill at revisiting older territory and finding new outcroppings in it. "Victor Jara's Hands," a tribute to the Chilean poet/musician/political activist who was murdered in 1973, begins Carried to Dust in quintessential Calexico fashion with intricate rhythms from Convertino and swells of mariachi horns, but the guest vocals by Jairo Zavala of the Spanish band Depedro add an extra, eloquent depth. "El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited)" returns to the rhythms and melody of The Black Light's "Trigger," but transforms them into a tense spaghetti western theme.
The thoughtful, whispery pop Calexico dove into on Garden Ruin also gets its due here; unlike that album, which was so gentle that its charms took awhile to unfold, Carried to Dust's quiet moments are often just as vivid as the flamboyant ones. "House of Valparaiso," which features Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, "Writer's Minor Holiday"'s twangy pop, and "Slowness"'s sweetly ambling country duet sound even brighter next to "Inspiracion"'s en Espanol lovelorn drama or "Two Silver Trees"' gorgeously shadowy fusion of Latin and Asian elements -- Calexico is one of a handful of groups that would think of combining Chinese guizeng, Venezuelan cuatro, and omnichord on one song and make all those sounds work together in a completely natural way. Carried to Dust also has subtler moments of innovation, such as "Bend to the Road," which expands on Calexico's southwestern jazz leanings, and "Contention City," a collaboration with Tortoise's Doug McCombs that spins toy piano and electronics into a haunting finale. Carried to Dust isn't just one of Calexico's most expansive albums, it's also their most balanced, channeling their experience and potential into a subtly dramatic, chiaroscuro tour de force.
Carried to Dust
Being in Calexico is almost like attending a music school, where every record is another lesson on the way to a dissertation. Core members Joey Burns and John Convertino prepped in Giant Sand and Friends of Dean Martinez, and they've kept a busy schedule of extracurricular activities since, touring with Wilco and Iron & Wine and playing on dozens of other people's records. Their own albums have swerved all over the stylistic map while maintaining an essential sense of identity. The divergence in sound between their last two albums, 2003's Feast of Wire and 2006's Garden Ruin, basically predicts the shape of Carried to Dust-- Feast of Wire was the record where they tried everything and made it work; its follow-up was their basic rock album.
While they're frequently thought of as stylists or synthesists, Calexico use their cross-genre amalgams to make music of emotional power and beauty, and this record has exceptional instances of both. "Writer's Minor Holiday" provides the beauty. Convertino's laid-back, jazzy drumming drives the track, freeing falsetto vocals and sparing dabs of steel guitar to serve as ghostly hooks and allowing the central melody to reveal itself slowly. Several of these songs are like that-- the primary vocal is so understated it defers to the instruments; to that end, string-soaked, waltz-time ballad "The News About William" works almost like a duet between Burns and Paul Niehaus' steel guitar.
Multi-instrumentalist Jacob Valenzuela gets his first Calexico co-lead vocal here, sharing the mic with guest Amparo Sanchez on the Spanish-language "Inspiración", which has the album's boldest borderland horn part and a freaky underlying organ ostinato. Other guests include Jairo Zavala, who partners with Burns on the dark chorus of "Victor Jara's Hands", and Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, who lends his soft harmonies to the sensuous flamenco-dub slide of "House of Valparaiso". The album's final third is darker and harder, moving from the desert surf of "El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited)" to the sawing, mournful cello of "Falling from Sleeves" to the icy, spooky soundscape of closer "Contention City", a slow drift of electric piano, glockenspiel, and otherwordly steel guitar featuring Doug McCombs of Tortoise and Brokeback.
Carried to Dust, therefore, is more in the band's usual Southwestern jazz/country/rock/tejano mold than their last, but it's not as diffuse or far-ranging as Feast of Wire. Ultimately, this is the type of record this band is suited to making, and it richly rewards repeat listening-- details and melodies that seem buried or understated eventually come to fore, slowly revealed in a mixture of organic warmth, welcome variety, and subtle complexity.
- Joe Tangari, September 11, 2008