CD Review: Calexico, "Garden Ruin" (Quarterstick)
Calexico takes a complete left turn with its new release, "Garden Ruin." It's a work that shares so little in common with the group's previous outing, 2003's "Feast of Wire," that it's amazing to think it came from the same band.
Calexico has traditionally seemed to focus mostly on creating a distinctive sound. The band has certainly excelled in that arena, coming up with a distinctive blend drawn from such unlikely sources as spaghetti-Western soundtracks, surf rock, Portuguese fado and '50s jazz.
Almost all of those influences are downplayed on "Garden Ruin," and the result is that the individual songs are more memorable than the overall sound. In the past, you would walk away from listening to a Calexico CD talking about how the entire disc made you feel. With "Garden Ruin," however, you're more likely to step back with a specific song or two still running through your head. That's a first for this group.
Don't take that as a ringing endorsement, though. "Garden Ruin" is a solid album, but it's also Calexico's most generic indie-rock-style outing to date. In place of the all the wacky Southwestern elements that made "Feast" such an odd pleasure, the band is now drawing very heavily on traditional pop songcraft and rock 'n' roll. There's nothing wrong with that--except that it goes against so much of what made Calexico special in the first place.
Listening to the songs "Cruel" and "Yours and Mine," two nice pieces that open the CD, you might think that you're listening to a couple of Wilco outtakes. The peppy "Bisbee Blue" could've come from Death Cab for Cutie's last record. Then there's the closer, "All Systems Red," which is an escalating modern-rock anthem that U2 could use to close arena shows.
None of those comparisons are insults--Wilco, Death Cab and U2 are all excellent groups. But none of them could have made "Feast of Wire." Probably only Calexico could have done that. In contrast, however, there are far too many bands that could have made "Garden Ruin."