Calexico has always been one of those bands that make music writers say stupid things. For a decade, we’ve been calling them “desert rock” or “spaghetti western” or “southwestern country.” None of these terms is entirely without merit, but when forced to describe them, I’ve always found it more effective (if slightly more time-consuming) to say things like, “Oh, remember that record I put on at my party, when everyone thought there was a rattlesnake in the room? Yeah, that’s them!”
For better or worse, those days seem to be behind us. Calexico’s new full-length, Garden Ruin, marks a sizable departure for the band, as they’ve left behind a good portion of the hazy, sun-dried goodness they built their career around. Instead, frontman Joey Burns and multi-instrumentalist John Convertino have gone and made a pop album — a pop album with influences ranging far beyond those of all the 60s dilettantes we come across so often, but a pop album nonetheless.
It was recorded above a restaurant in a suburb of Tuscon, and judging from the whimsical tone that pops up every now and then, you get the feeling it wasn’t a particularly stressful environment. Thirty seconds into the opener, ‘Cruel,’ longtime fans of the band will be shocked by the breezy vocals and driving, 70s country-rock vibe. Things continue along the same path with ‘Bisbee Blue,’ which, like most of the best songs here, prominently features the bright sounds of a steel-string acoustic guitar rather than the nylon-string that was employed on their previous work. ‘Letter to Bowie Knife’ even sounds like a Cat Stevens song, until it erupts halfway through to sound like — I’m not kidding — Ben Kweller.
If all of this seems a little too odd, or not odd enough actually, don’t be alarmed. There are songs like ‘Roka,’ and ‘Nom De Plume’ that feature enough creepy whispering and heavy-handed maracas to prove that they haven’t completely abandoned their fans. They came pretty fucking close, though, and that’s usually what makes for the best records.