By Crow Winters
Carried to Dust, the new album from longtime indie-rock institution Calexico, is music with a capital “M.” Calexico’s shtick is being well read. Joey Burns was studying music in college when the band was formed, and if the mishmash of culture-heavy genres is any indication, he’s never really stopped studying it. This is either a highlight of the band’s music or a detracting element. There are a ton of country-friendly slide guitars, mariachi horns, hushed storyteller vocals, and even some western whistling. Sound familiar? This more or less sums up the band’s career, and it’s hardly new territory in the world of subverting Americana.
Calexico’s last release, the 2006 album Garden Wire, was the first time the band really stepped outside of themselves; perhaps due to shock, Carried to Dust sounds like a retreat back to the safe house. It’s sure to please longtime fans, particularly those put off by Garden Wire, but it’s likely not to get anyone that didn’t drink the Kool-Aid the first time around. This album is unapologetically lush, mid-tempo, beautiful on paper but sometimes cold in practice. It’s the sound of a band creatively withdrawing into their collective shell.
Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t great songs here. Album closer “Contention City” is one incredible mood piece: dark, haunting, and arresting, this song singlehandedly takes back the term “soundscape” from the electronica laptop musicians that have hogged it for too long. In contrast, the instrumental “El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited)” is an invigorating gallop that breaks up the tension of mid-tempo pieces that slur together around it. “Two Silver Trees” and “Man Made Lake” are undoubtedly the album’s easiest tracks to tout: they have a melody and snarl that stick with you, and their big choruses and whirling guitars are dizzying and satisfying.
When some of the tracks don’t work, it’s no fault of the musicianship — it has more to do with imagination. Joey Burns’s voice suffers from his desire to be too perfect, too in control, and too wispy, which makes songs like “The News About William,” “Red Blooms,” and “Slowness” ineffective and frequently impenetrable. He has a self-imposed lack of versatility and overabundance of seriousness that makes these songs ultimately forgettable. The album also feels unusually long, even though it’s only forty-five minutes. That forty-five minutes is stretched through fifteen tracks, and it’s easy to think that they could’ve axed some of the weaker tracks and stretched some of their better ideas, such as “Inspiracion” and “Fractured Air,” past the three-minute mark.
Your approval of the new Calexico album will say a lot about what you look for in music. Carried to Dust is ultimately rigid and history obsessed, but the songwriters’ love for what they do is simply undeniable, as is their craft and execution. Those looking for music that looks forwards instead of backwards, however, should be advised to look elsewhere.