The late summer drought of new music has finally come to an end with releases from desert veterans Calexico and Giant Sand. Carried to Dust sees the prolific Calexico return to the myriad influences that characterised their work before the relatively straighforward folk-rock of Garden Ruin, from 2006.
Calexico’s stength lies in the way their songs are ingrained with the conflicts and contrasts of the territories they draw their inspiration from. Sunbaked Californian folk fuses with traditional Mariachi and European folk and jazz to create music that is filled with tension and genuine beauty. Opener ‘Victor Jara’s Hands’ is a rousing number which bursts into a technicolour Mariachi affair that could soundtrack a border town barbeque at sunset. Their are few bands that evoke such a sense of place in their music and lyrics- Calexico transport you to a dramatic world where every day life and tradition is under threat from encroaching modernity and ruthless capitalism.
The desert and its history are vivid in Joey Burns’s lyrics, in the rhythm section and in John Convertino’s textured drumming, which forms the backbone to their sound. As mentioned by Convertino on the World Drifts In documentary, the desert becomes a part of you, it “it hits your bones in a way that, it’s like welding or something, it’s like it’s all kind of solidyfing or healing”.
Burns has always readily engaged with political and cultural issues in his lyrics, grounding them in stories of ordinary people trying to make a life for themselves. On Carried to Dust, his skill for saying so much with in so few words is consistently evident. Potent imagery was in part what made Feast of Wire made such a rewarding listen, and its evident here in lyrics like “I’ll gather the leaves from cell phone trees/ And return them to their place/ And pretend someone’s calling for me”. Great written down; even better when delivered in Burns’s hushed, half whispered style.
On Carried to Dust, Calexico take genre conventions and appropriate them for dramatic effect, from the Spagetti-Western score of “El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited)” to the gorgeous country slide guitar of ‘Slowness’, a ballad with Pieta Brown that highlights how affecting their music can be, even when the Latino influences are stripped away.
Feast of Wire still stands as the band’s opus, in part because it embraced the weirdness of border life. That record was engaging for the same reason as Howe Gelb’s Giant Sand output, because for every straightforward country number there was an ‘Attack El Robot! Attack!’ to swerve you off the highway and into unknown and exciting surroundings. Even with its rich tapestry of influences and contributors (including Sam Beam of Iron & Wine), Carried to Dust feels more conservative and settled. It’s a great record and a good illustration of what they’re about but it’s definitely worth digging deeper.