After roughly a year of touring with traditional singer/songwriters Sam
Beam and Death Vessel, to name two the band has throttled back on its
genre-crossing experiments and delivered a cohesive musical
statement. There is nothing here as shockingly gorgeous as "Black Heart"
from Feast of Wire, nothing as wonderfully propulsive as
"Quattro (World Drifts In)", but also no captivating oddities (except,
perhaps, the French-noir mutterings of "Nom de Plume"). Instead Garden
Ruin consists of 11 structured songs, hinting at rock, folk,
country, Latin and jazz, but never going off the deep end into any single
genre. It's a disciplined work, less thrilling than Feast of Wire
or the Convict Pool EP, but more resolutely on message.
The message is, not surprisingly, quite political, in an allusive, poetic
way. Opener "Cruel" (which sounds a good deal like "Convict Pool") sets
the tone with verses like "Cruel, heartless reign/Chasing short-term
gains/Right down to the warning signs" about as concise an indictment
Dubya and pals as you can imagine. The words gain heft from the musical
setting, an interlocking web of percussion, piano, glockenspiel and brass,
that supports a sweeping cinematic melody. The song ends in a beautiful
interval of criss-crossing wordless singing, simple as the rest of the song
was complicated. Later, in "Deep Down" the band considers personal
responsibility in the new robber-baron era, with lyrics like "Be a good
example, show your new tricks/ And while you're out there they'll make the
pitch/ To rally the troops and make a huge contribution/ To help push this
through/ Deep down you know it's evil/ You've always known it's evil."
There's significantly less Latin influence in Garden Ruin than on
previous records just one song, really, that carries the mariachi
stamp. That one, "Roka (Danza de la muerta)," is a highlight, as Burns
trades vocals with Amparo Sanchez, a dusky alto'd Spanish singer sometimes
called the female Manu Chao. Like "Across the Wire," the song describes
the terrible underside of our current national immigration debate the
hundreds, maybe thousands of immigrants who attempt to cross the border and
die in the attempt. Tense with vibrating guitar notes, driven by rim-shot
drum rhythms, embellished with horns and jazz-Latin piano riffs, the song
alternates between Burns' whispered intensity and Sanchez's rich, emotive
A few of the songs are more personal, stripped down and perhaps influenced by touring with Iron & Wine. "Yours and Mine" reduces the band
to essence, just Convertino and Burns, with the guitar kicking in only
after the first minimal verse. You notice mostly how beautiful Burns'
voice is, how transparently it conveys emotion, with just the barest
ornamentation around it. "Panic Open String" is lighter, skittering over
its melody with breathless falsettos, though it seems, like many of the
songs, to be about love in ominous times. And "Smash," maybe the best of
the lyrically personal songs, is all dark insinuation, building suddenly to
piano-heavy catharsis, and subsiding to a whisper again.
Garden Ruin has some wonderful songs, alongside a few ("Bisbee Blue"
and "Lucky Dime") that seem disappointingly conventional. In the end, this
record feels kind of like a Calexico for Dummies, the band's best
attributes laid out PowerPoint style in big bold letters, its
harder-to-categorize music left out for simplicity. My feeling is that you
can't get to great songs like "Black Heart" or "Not Even Stevie Nicks" or
"Convict Pool" without going down a lot of blind alleys first. Garden
Ruin sticks to the main road and takes few chances.