There are a few records around the Uncut office at the moment that I think I could responsibly class as disappointing, not least the new Mercury Rev album, which ambitiously finds them trying to reinvent themselves as whimsical cosmic ravers.
It’s certainly not a pale retread of “Deserter’s Songs”, like the last couple, but it’s not hugely successful either. And the final track, “A Squirrel And I”, is so oppressively cute that it has the awful effect of making me wary of their earlier records, which I loved; as if this knowledge about squirrels will somehow reveal their old fantasias to be just as twee.
I mention this because “Snowflake/Midnight” prompted a modicum of fuss on a playlist blog a couple of weeks ago – the same one on which Calexico’s “Carried To Dust” first surfaced. One worried poster asked me whether this was one of the billed “disappointments”, to which I replied rapidly and briefly that it wasn’t.
A few days later, I got an email from an old fan of the band. “Interested to see that you embraced the new Calexico album on your blog without reference to the last one,” they wrote. “I think the words ‘desperately required return to form’ are appropriate.”
Harsh words, I think. But it’s true that “Garden Ruin” marginally alienated a bunch of faithful Calexico fans, by dropping a lot of the South-Western set dressing and making a more straightforward singer-songwriterish album. It was probably a sensible move; a mildly anxious assertion that the core musicality of the band had a life beyond all the regional colour. But the end product, if memory serves, felt somehow unresolved: yes, Calexico were not entirely dependent on the border country schtick – but for sure, their music was so much more rich and atmospheric when the mariachi flourishes and so on were present in the mix.
The good news, then, is that “Carried To Dust” is a quiet retreat into older territory. Rather than focusing on Joey Burns’ voice exclusively, this Calexico album has that deep, variegated texture of their best work, with Wavelab technician Craig Schumacher back on production duty. Different voices and languages share the microphone, instrumental passages are as important as the vocal tracks; the album feels more like a vivid musical tapestry than a formal collection of songs – an egoless expression of musical community, rather than a mere band doing their work. Even the sleeve of “Carried To Dust” looks like it’s been created by Victor Gastelum, the artist who did their earliest records.
I wonder if this retrenchment is in any way grudging, as if returning to a clichéd notion of Calexico is a kind of admission of failure? It doesn’t sound it, happily. Burns and John Convertino are, of course, far too artful and respectful to make their records into some kind of aural Mexican theme park (for that, can I direct you to Brian Wilson’s excruciating “Mexican Girl” on the forthcoming “That Lucky Old Sun”?), and “Carried To Dust” is, perhaps, a subtler appropriation of those themes, techniques and textures than, say, “Feast Of Wire”.
It’s not as good a record as the magisterial “Feast Of Wire”, either – though Calexico albums can be insidious things, so I’ll reserve absolute judgment for a while yet. “Carried To Dust” purports to be a concept album of sorts, tracking a film writer during the 2007 Hollywood strike as he goes travelling. There is a wonderful moment about a minute into the opening track, “Victor Jara’s Hand”, when Burns delicately picks his way to the chorus and the horns burst into the song. For the next verse, Burns drops out to be replaced by a Spanish singer, Jairo Zavala.
Zavala is part of “Carried To Dust”’s weighty cast, which also includes Pieta Brown, Amparo Sanchez from Amparanoia (I have to admit my knowledge of these people is sketchy, to say the least), Doug McCombs from Tortoise and Sam Beam from Iron And Wine, whose reverent whisper gracefully tracks Burns on the exceptional “House Of Valparaiso” (another Chilean reference there).
As I write this morning, I’m listening to the album for the first time on headphones, and its depths are beginning to reveal themselves. Joey Burns is a great one for balancing widescreen melodrama with a calm, humane presence; check how elegantly he navigates the string-washed “The News About William”, while Convertino’s imaginative rhythms give the song a further, winning awkwardness.
There are charming little pop songs here: the familiar twang of “Writer’s Minor Holiday”, which reminds me of something indistinct from “The Hot Rail”; and “Two Silver Trees” which, as one of my colleagues has gleefully pointed out, has a chorus that’s oddly – and not unhappily – reminiscent of Abba.
But again, what’s most striking about “Carried To Dust” is the vivid, textured ambience – especially the slow fade at the close of “Contention City” – and the sense of a creative democracy in action. So “Inspiracion” finds the band’s excellent trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela taking the mic for a duet with Sanchez, while the prickly backing seems like a subtly treated rethink of traditional Mexican music. Even when the odd song seems to slip into something of a generic holding pattern, there’s always detailing to admire: a rattle of percussive keys in the cracks between trumpet and steel on “Hole In Your Hand (Bend In The Road)”; the echo of dub on “Tornado Watch”.
Let me know what you think, anyway, when you get a chance to hear it.