Named for a border town between California and Mexico, Calexico have spent the better part of their career making music that continuously drives home the intended meaning of their name: they’re an American band with ties to the indie-rock scene (if only by their record label affiliations and not any overriding aesthetic sensibility), but also with a pronounced fondness for sounds from south of the border, incorporating various elements of mariachi and cumbia, with horns and classical guitars playing a prominent role. They’ve long been one of many exceptions to the widely accepted notion that American indie rock is too insular and essentially xenophobic.
When Calexico released Garden Ruin in 2006, though, they left behind a good deal of their Mexican and southwestern influences and made the most easily digested, guitar-heavy record of their career. It was disappointing on some level — like torchbearers had suddenly abandoned their cause — but taken at face value, it was a huge success as a pop album. The melodies sounded instantly familiar, and the band seemed to be having a very obvious kind of fun for the first time ever, really. With Carried to Dust, they’re back to business as usual, for the most part, but they’ve taken with them some of the lessons they learned with Garden Ruin.
Carried to Dust, the band’s sixth full-length, might be the most accurate portrait of the dual sensibilities of co-bandleaders Joey Burns and Jon Convertino, who originally got together after playing in Howe Gelb’s similarly minded Giant Sand. They’ve managed to hold on to the hyper-melodic edge that lifted Garden Ruin to such great heights (‘Man Made Lake’, ‘The News About William’, ‘House of Valapraiso’), but they’ve also reintroduced an adventurous sense of instrumental exploration, melding traditional rock sounds with all the horns , shakers, and haunting, snaking keyboard parts they’ve toyed with since day one. All in all, it’s nothing vastly different than what we’ve come to expect from Calexico, but Carried to Dust is just subtle enough in its juxtapositions that it comes off as the most idealized version of the band we’ve ever heard: they manage to avoid falling into pastiche, which is something they’ve been not unjustly accused of in the past, but they also manage not to over-simplify their approach and lose sight of what made them interesting to begin with.