Reminiscent of both Feast of Wire and Garden Ruin, Calexico’s latest release is an atmospheric and evocative album that finds the band once again playing to its strengths. Entitled Carried to Dust, it’s a textured and layered album that reveals new melodies and instrumental tricks with each listen. By now anyone familiar with the band’s jazz/country/rock/folk/Latin mixture won’t mistake a Calexico song for that of any other band. Though the image of Calexico as a collection of wandering troubadours invoking the music and culture of both the American Southwest and Mexico is by now largely inaccurate, several of the songs fit neatly into the Calexico playbook. Opening track “Victor Jara’s Hands” invokes the Chilean poet/musician/activist who was killed in 1973 and features the usual mariachi horns that somehow work on a Calexico album, instead of sending the listener running for cover like he would at certain Mexican restaurants. “Inspiración” similarly goes gonzo with horns; sung in Spanish, the song still manages to create a definite tone and feel even if the listener’s knowledge of the language is limited to Taco Bell commercials and those very un-PC Speedy Gonzalez cartoons. Instrumentals like “El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited)” and “Falling from Sleeves” nicely recall similar instrumental pieces from the band’s previous albums.
Other songs are more reserved and wouldn’t sound out of place on Garden Ruin. “Bend to the Road” is restrained and tense, with occasional jazz flourishes and near-whispered vocals, as it implies some sort of impending disaster. “Slowness” features Pieta Brown and is essentially a country duet that floats along with one of the album’s most memorable and stripped-down melodies. Closer “Contention City” moves at its own languid pace and trails off into an instrumental ending with steel guitar, piano, and that most popular of modern instruments, the glockenspiel.
With the album’s emphasis on sonic textures created by the large variety of instruments used and musical genres explored – like many Calexico albums, mood and tone are often the most immediately noticeable aspects – the vocals are somewhat subdued. Yet this isn’t to say that they’re incidental; instead, recurring themes and images surface in many of the songs. Perhaps most striking are the various references to some type of disastrous event, often hand-in-hand with an isolated person and with a focus on nature’s destructive power. “Man Made Lake” finds its narrator roaming among the wreckage “like…a ghost searching for its grave,” walking through “streets with no stir of life…and all the houses on the streets wholly submerged.” Other songs exist inside a destroyed landscape; in “The News About William,” the central character is left in a barren landscape after a “storm that washed the roads out.”
Similarly, the character in “Fractured Air (Tornado Watch)” finds himself “clinging to the rooftop/losing track of days;” the listener can only assume this poor soul’s not hanging out on the roof for shits and grins. Nature’s indifference to humans runs through “Red Blooms,” a song ostensibly about Russian “snowdrops,” a term used to describe drunks who fall down and die in the snow and aren’t discovered until after the snow melts. It’s a disturbing image – “strangers plant themselves down in the cold hard ground/later when the harvest thaws, snowdrops will be in bloom” – with a particularly grim sense of humor about the cycles of life.
Though perhaps not a radical stylistic departure from the band’s previous albums, Carried to Dust is a richly layered album, with recurring themes and melodies that reveal themselves with each subsequent listening.