First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2006, Volume 13, #5
Written by John Metzger
Wilco might not have realized it at the time, but when the band gave birth to summerteeth in 1999, it instigated a series of shockwaves that have been rolling through the indie rock community ever since. The latest outfit to fall fully under its spell is the Arizona-based collective Calexico. On its four previous endeavors, the ensemble drew heavily from its southwestern surroundings to create the distinctive blend of flamenco guitars, mariachi horns, surf rock, and jazz that has been dubbed "desert noir."
With this in mind, Calexico’s latest outing Garden Ruin is a major departure for the band. Aside from the seductive Roka (Danze de la Muerte) — a somber portrayal of a border crossing that tellingly serves as the set’s most compelling tune — Garden Ruin contains nothing that can be tied to the ensemble’s southwestern heritage. Likewise, with the exception of the eerie, French-spoken Nom de Plume, Calexico largely forsakes its experimental approach in favor of arrangements that are tighter and more straightforward.
Throughout Garden Ruin’s other nine songs, Calexico shifts from material that is symphonic in spirit to selections that are quietly intimate, but the problem is that the band never moves its arrangements beyond the gamut of today’s typical touchstones. Tinges of The Velvet Underground, for example, lurk beneath the surface of Smash; Lucky Dime borrows directly from The Turtles; Deep Down crosses U2 with Matthew Ryan; Letter to Bowie Knife situates itself between Neil Diamond and The Who; and Cruel is a slice of soft rock in the vein of Harry Nilsson. From almost any other Americana-imbued, indie rock outfit, this might be a step forward. For Calexico, it decidedly is a major regression, and strange as it may seem, the ensemble ultimately has subverted its distinctive flavor in order to pursue a puzzlingly generic approach. At least its lyrics — which alternate among taking aim at environmental degradation and urban sprawl (Bisbee Blue), delving into both thinly veiled (Cruel) and blatant political discourse (All Systems Red), and detailing a calamitous relationship from the point of view of the abuser (Smash) — remain strong and frequently poetic. This alone, however, isn’t enough to save Garden Ruin from being little more than a well-intentioned but surprisingly run-of-the-mill affair from a band that is capable of sculpting something greater.
Garden Ruin is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box