What has separated Calexico from so many soundalike alt-country bands over the course of their decade-long career is their commitment to challenging the very idea of genre labels, crafting a signature sound that’s at once recognizable as Americana but which never shied from sonic experiments both weird-ass and inspired. To refer to Garden Ruin as Calexico’s tightest, most focused album, then, isn’t necessarily the compliment it would be for another band. Without any instrumental cuts, a staple of the band’s earlier releases for their expert mood-setting effect, and by excising some of the bells-and-whistles—or, more tellingly, the Mariachi horns—that have given their work such distinctive texture, the Calexico of Garden Ruin often sounds like just another better-than-average band stripmining the territory of Neil Young, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and The Byrds.
Given that Calexico have made a career out of building a mythology of the American Southwest, much in the same way that Drive-By Truckers evoke the rural South, that they’re suddenly taking such overt musical cues from Gram Parsons makes a certain intuitive sense, in that Parsons’s legacy is so inextricably tied to that region. The logic holds, and that’s important, but the resulting music is just a bit of a regression for Calexico; no one ever doubted that they could construct a three-and-a-half minute rock song. The accessibility of the music is paired, not entirely successfully, with a newfound interest in current politics in frontman Joey Burns’ songwriting. Angry lines like, “Cruel, heartless reign/Chasing short-term gains/Right down to the warning signs,” from opener “Cruel” could be mistaken for System Of A Down, and there’s a definite sense from a straight reading of the lyrics that Garden Ruin is a protest album. There isn’t, however, a sense that Calexico is raging against any machine in particular, and, with the exception of the stomping “Letter To Bowie Knife,” they honestly just don’t sound too worked up about any of this.
Still, the combination of some smartly observed images (“The sun will split in two/Sink through an empty sky” on “Panic Open String,” for instance) with an agreeable, polished roots-rock sound makes for an album that’s likely to earn Calexico a legion of new fans, particularly among those who first discovered the band on their 2004 In The Reins EP collaboration with Iron & Wine. It’s the band’s die-hards who will have to put in a good deal more work with Garden Ruin, an album that seems destined to be regarded as a “transitional” record a few years out.