In 1998, a film was released that, while performing modestly at the box office, would go on to become a cult classic that gained widespread recognition as one of the greatest comedies of the 90’s, if not of all time. In that film, The Big Lebowski, we follow the adventures of The Dude as he wanders the ins and outs of Southern California in order to replace his living room rug that was urinated upon in a sad case of mistaken identity. Why? Because that rug really tied the room together.
Fast forward to ten years later. Calexico, a well-respected yet still fairly outside of the mainstream group releases the album Carried to Dust. The Arizona duo has been quietly grinding it out on the indie music scene since forming as a side project of LA band Giant Sand in the mid-90’s, whilst farming out their considerable musical talents to back such performers such as Iron & Wine and Nancy Sinatra.
Calexico has spent the years cultivating a fascinating blend of jazz, mariachi and other Latin styles, and rock ‘n’ roll to create a gorgeous pastiche of the American Southwest. My first experience with a Calexico song was hearing the blaring mariachi horns of “The Crystal Frontier” from their 2001 EP Even My Sure Things Fall Through. The song was an immediate hit with me, but I could never escape the feeling that it was all a little gimmicky and could not sustain them through a full career. Of course, I had similar feelings the first time I heard the pirate rock of The Decemberists, so I have been proven wrong before.
And proven me wrong Calexico has. Their 2003 full length Feast of Wire is a masterpiece of experimental fusion, and such songs as “Sunken Waltz” and “Across The WIre” brought a new dimension to their mariachi rock. 2006 follow up full length Garden Ruin saw the band take a few steps away from their experimental side, reining in the horns and completely eschewing their all-instrumental tracks to bring forth a much more straight ahead rock album. They pulled off the transition incredibly well, and it looked as though Calexico’s mariachi days may be left behind.
Now, with Carried To Dust, Calexico has once again proven me wrong. The album is an incredibly cohesive demonstration of everything they have learned in their past, an amalgam of the mariachi playfulness that has served them so well in the past matched with skillful pop songwriting and, most of all, wondrous arrangements. It took me a long time to make the connection, but Calexico’s sound, past and present, is a not so distant cousin of the out of character but incredibly masterful Pixies song “Silver” from landmark 1989 indie album Doolittle. Perhaps inadvertently, Calexico have taken the desolate sound and feel of Black Francis and Kim Deal’s wailing western world as a foundation, and they have crafted something wholly new.
The album begins with “Victor Jara’s Hands”, a rousing salsa number with guest vocals by Jairo Zavala, who lends a Gipsy Kings feel to the song. The albums first perfunctory Calexico waltz comes in the form of “The News About William”, which features a marching snare, quiet horns, and intricate string melodies that gorgeously intertwine with Joey Burns’ lead vocal to create a chillingly sorrowful song. Another highlight is the island-tinted flamenco of “House of Valparaiso”, featuring guest vocals by Sam Beam of Iron & Wine. The nautical imagery and light-as-air percussion, classical guitar, and horn accompaniment take the listener on a trip through coastal waters of Baja. Here, as in almost every song on the album, the real star is the arrangments of both the music and the vocals, which coexist and intermingle in such subtle and understated ways as to lend an effortless and goosebump-inducing authenticity to each tune.
Calexico have been on the indie rock scene for years, and they have slowly and quietly established themselves at the top of the genre, blending styles and honing their craft to a sharp edge along the way. Like The Big Lebowski, they have gained a slow but inevitable cult following that may one day elevate them to the status of one of the greatest of all time. For now, I am glad to be one of those that has had the privilege of following them from back when they were unknown. With Carried To Dust, Calexico have finally found that perfect mix of their myriad influences that, in the words of Walter Sobchak, “really ties the room together.” Fuckin’ A.
“Two Silver Trees”