Calexico's warm, delicate music for warm, delicate days makes their new album, Garden
Ruin, a wonderful summer spin. I can just picture people
everywhere lying on chaise lounges, swinging gently in hammocks, sitting
knees-to-chest in bay windows, or perched on fire escapes, bare legs
dangling, swaying to the folk-rock textures of Garden Ruin.
These are the sounds certain to accompany the smells of barbecue grills,
wilting spring flowers and thick summer heat. These are the sounds meant for
days of doing nothing. Singer/guitarist Joey Burns' voice is a bit hazy and
hushed, his singing sounding washed out from the distance so as not to
interrupt your time-wasting. The guitars, usually acoustic, feel a little
rock, a little folk, a little country-Western, a little spaghetti, and all
delicate, all unobtrusive, all gorgeous. The beats are gentle, jazzy and
lazy. The structures involve more snapping pop and emotion, less noodling
and resonation that you might recall from previous recordings. And the songs
are happy and sad, dark and joyful, a pleasant mix of dispositions,
stories and, at times, political rants.
But regardless of which song you're
listening to, which emotion engages you or which story is unfolding, you're
going to fall in love with Garden Ruin this summer, wherever you are.
Listening to Garden Ruin, you can feel the influence of recent
Calexico collaborations, whether it's the soft strumming and wispy tunes of
Iron & Wine (Calexico and Sam Beam together released the great EP In the
Reins last year), the bittersweet melodies of Wilco (with whom Calexico
recently toured) or the steamy, sultry feel of Neko Case and Nancy
Sinatra (on whose newest songs Calexico recently made guest appearances).
The album opens with the carefully strummed "Cruel," whose achy melodies and
chilly rush of instrumentation (trumpet, pedal steel, tambourine, organ,
glockenspiel) feels like reliving a particularly emotional event, or a moving
scene from a good film. Snapping, uptempo "Bisbee Blue," with an irresistible hook, banjo and occasional cello, feels fit for a
nice, lighthearted time on the back porch. "Letter to Bowie Knife," the
record's loudest, fullest, most rock 'n' roll track, keeps the electric
guitar up front and features playful '60s-type back-up vocals, while "Roka
(Danza de la Muerte)" features beautiful vocal contributions (in Spanish) from the famed Amparo Sanchez; this passionate song is colored by horn
arrangements, trumpet, piano and shakers. "Cup your hands to her perched
heart, perched and broken heart," Burns half sings, half whispers on "Roka."
"No water here to drink from way downstream/ One goes where the water flows
and water's running dry/ So don't give up no don't cry, don't cry."
by the steely picking of the banjo, "Nom de Plume" is an odd, sluggish song,
in French with low-pitched vocals that menace and haunt; it
would have fit well with other street musicians playing on the side of a
cobblestone street in Paris in the early 1900s. The slowly building, later
explosive closer, "All Systems Red," is a resentful, heart-wrenching song
about the state of the world today: "When you think it couldn't get much
worse/ The numbers rise on the death toll/ And the chimes of freedom flash
and fade/ Only heard from far, far away."
But it's up to you whether to be consumed by Calexico's hard-hitting emotion or blanketed in their masterful textures. Listen to
Garden Ruin casually while picking weeds or skewering shish kabobs.
Or listen to it intently with a pair of headphones and a pillow. Either way,
you'll love having it around this summer.