Calexico | Carried to Dust (Quarterstick)

cd_calexico.jpgThis record finds Calexico returning to a simpler songwriting process, starting with just Burns and Convertino, and then adding the band and a laundry list of notable contributors to the fray.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I’ve lovingly followed Calexico for quite some time. There was a time when Feast of Wire was, in my mind, the group’s defining statement: lightning in a bottle, a culmination of all the right ingredients which by happenstance, or perhaps divine mischief, had somehow been allowed to exist right here on earth, rather than some remote, ethereal milieu. Was is the operative word here, because I’ve just heard duo’s latest effort, the Calexico album that dethrones all others, Carried to Dust.

2006’s Garden Ruin was Calexico’s first decidedly "group" album, where the "band" (meaning Burns, Convertino, Niehaus, Valenzuela, Wenk and Zander) went into the studio and wrote in the conventional sense. Carried to Dust is as well, just a different kind of group. This record finds Calexico returning to a simpler songwriting process, starting with just Burns and Convertino, and then adding the band and a laundry list of notable contributors to the fray. For a group known for collaboration, this album draws from the biggest pool yet. Indeed, Burns and Convertino have found an interesting blend here, seeming to draw the best out of everyone and every track, overlapping the catchy with the subdued, and the serious with the lighthearted. Indie rock and Latin influences collide and sparkle, revealing not only their most mature record to date, but their best.

The album opens with a characteristically hip, seductively-syncopated, salt-of-the-earth tune, "Victor Jara’s Hands." Seldom are opening tracks quite this effective. "Victor Jara’s Hands," is the verbal equivalent of a nice handshake, followed, perhaps, by a knowing wink. Burns’ performance is almost schizophrenic, due only to how much ground he manages to cover vocally. He starts signing with an almost pleading texture, and then deftly goads the chorus to fruition.

Burns further explores his vocal style on "House of Valparaiso," where he layers beautifully produced melodies in constantly varying styles. The song starts out with a cunning call-and-response, beginning with Burns’ signature worried-whisper delivery, and answered by angelic waves of response sung by Sam Beam of Iron & Wine.

But the story doesn’t begin and end with Burns’ growing vocal repertoire; Calexico continues to cull the best of the Americana/Latin genre. Burns and Convertino are joined by a cast of contributors, including the aforementioned Beam (Iron & Wine), Howe Gelb (Giant Sand), Doug McCombs (Tortoise), Neko Case and Pieta Brown. Notably, Ms. Brown’s contribution on "Slowness" catapults the song out of the dregs of belabored, mid-album interludes and makes it one of the most tender, patient and beautiful moments of the record.

Speaking of moments, the record does have its obligatory "Spanish" moment in "Inspiracion," wherein Calexico’s mariachi contributors are highlighted. The song wears its Latin heritage like a shiny badge, as the strong voice of Amparo Sanchez projects in Spanish like a loudspeaker, over beautifully chirpy trumpets and a strange, almost Tom Waits-esque guitar rhythm. This song also proves to be one of Convertino’s best, as the often-overlooked other half of the duo strings the song along with a subtle elegance that boils to the surface upon repeat listens. Without Convertino’s rapid-fire accents and ingenious variations, the song would fall flat on its face…or at least trip a little. Instead, it flourishes.

Carried to Dust is much bigger than just the next Calexico album. As it bends genres and the band’s identity, and stands as one of the best albums of the year. What else is there to say about a record that is so whole, distinct, complex, frank and lovely? The record says it all much better than my clamoring, so if there’s one album to get the rest of the year, let it be Carried to DustA+ | Glen Elkins

Note: Calexico will be playing Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room in St. Louis November 9.

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