Album Reviews: Garden Ruin by CalexicoThe close of Calexico's Garden Ruin is so spirited and well-executed that it recasts the whole album in a different light. What comes before "Deep Down" and "All Systems Red" is an eight-song stretch of tunes that are solid but somewhat forgettable -- or, more charitably, simply don't outplay a crowded field. And -- better or worse, blessing or curse -- that's what is expected of Calexico at this point: not to stand in the middle of the road, but to be better than their peers and imitators.
To be fair, Garden Ruin is a transitional album, and may be paving the way for a future album that really blows the doors off the hinges, once the band has settled into their new groove. Billed as their "rock" album, Garden Ruin seems to be equal parts Americana-informed indie-pop and alt-country early on; it isn't until the fifth track, "Letter to Bowie Knife," that they finally race ahead with the rock. In case listeners are getting scared off by that point, they swiftly follow with "Roka," the most traditional song on the album, featuring a guest vocal from Amparo Sanchez that sounds perfectly and obviously at home in a Calexico song and yet, if detached from a back catalog, out of place on Garden Ruin. As much as anything, it's proof that the band has successfully gone off the old map.
But then things get really dicey, with a boring, jazzy song about finding a "Lucky Dime" and then "Smash," which takes a defeatist, sleepy pedal steel approach to a song that lyrically seems to be begging for more urgency or more vulnerability or more something.
If it ended there, Garden Ruin would be a promise of new, potentially good things to come from a band that could have just kept recycling their trusty old signature. But it would have been hard to recommend the album on its own merit. Fortunately, the closing trio of songs includes "Deep Down" and "All Systems Red," which finally rise up to match the intensity of the political and global concerns that rumble throughout the album. Both songs are lyrically incisive and, yes, bring the rock, too. While "Deep Down" is an electric guitar-led reprimand to those who have been bilked or blinded, "All Systems Red" is a fierier but ultimately more optimistic mini-epic with a wistful opening and a closing storm that wouldn't sound out of place coming from a noisy post-rock band like Mono. "I want to tear it all down and build it up again," Joey Burns shouts over the clamor. While he's talking about something much bigger than any band, that could also serve as a new mission statement for Calexico. - Adam McKibbin, The Red Alert
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