Monsters in the Garden

An evolving sound marks Calexico's political awakening.

Calexico: George W. Bush helped spark their political side.
Calexico: George W. Bush helped spark their political side.
Crystal frontiers and mariachi trumpet blasts. Airplane graveyards and instrumental mood pieces. Link Wray surf guitar and abandoned ghost towns. Black-topped deserts and spaghetti-western epics.

Calexico's music has been framed by the sounds and images of the Southwest for a decade -- synonymous with parched, widescreen desert landscapes and the cross-border cultural mélange of Tucson, its adopted hometown.

Calexico's founders, bassist Joey Burns and guitarist John Convertino, met in the mid-'90s while recording with Giant Sand. Though they'd go on to do session work together with artists such as Richard Buckner, Victoria Williams, and Lisa Germano, Calexico gravitated toward a loping, sun-damaged roots sound reminiscent of Giant Sand. Yet as deeply ingrained in Calexico's musical DNA are more familiar rock and roll strands -- punk, classic '60s pop, '70s rock, and that enigmatic beast known as indie rock.

It's this latent side of their pedigree that Burns and Convertino give voice to on Calexico's latest, Garden Ruin. There are enough familiar touchstones on the record to keep all but the most strictly doctrinaire in the fold, but the band's fifth official full-length makes clear that fundamental changes are under way. The surf and mariachi elements are altogether absent, as are the classically flavored instrumental interludes that characterized the band's early and mid-career eras.

And though Calexico has always had a progressive political bent, it's never been as up-front or prevalent as it is on Garden Ruin. It may not be London Calling, but forbidding imagery stalks the sunny melodies, and the sing-along rock anthems come with codas of karmic dissonance.

"We made a conscious decision to try something new and tap into strains in our musical fabric that haven't been highlighted in the past," Burns says. "This record turned out to be more about songs -- songs that didn't necessarily go back to the same pool of influences."

Not that anyone's going to confuse Garden Ruin as coming from anyone but Calexico. Most songs are still imbued with a dusky, wide-open feel as southwestern as saguaro cacti and sun-baked adobe. Some are subtle variations on familiar themes. "Roka" is akin to Hot Rail's "Ballad of Cable Hogue," in which vibes-accented verses alternate in English and Spanish (rather than French), the latter sung by Andalusian songstress and part-time Manu Chao collaborator Amparo Sanchez. "Yours and Mine" is a simple country elegy in the manner of the haunting "Gift X-Change" from Aerocalexico, with Convertino's brush strokes providing scaffolding for Burns' acoustic guitar and cello. And "Smash" is a pedal-steel-driven western epic with just a little less straight-ahead twang than Hot Rail's "Service & Repair."

Elsewhere the alterations are more fundamental and dramatic. They began in the songs' earliest incarnations, when Burns turned for his initial sketches to steel-stringed guitars, rather than the classical nylon-stringed instrument he previously favored.

The songs also rely less on the minor-key construction that has characterized them since '98's The Black Light, opting for major-chord immediacy. Both Burns and Convertino cite Feast of Wire's folk-pop tune, "Not Even Stevie Nicks," as the moment when the band began incorporating other musical influences.

Another key to Garden Ruin's shift in musical emphasis was the decision to bring in an outside producer, something Calexico typically didn't do. The bandmates chose J.D. Foster, who produced Richard Buckner's Devotion & Doubt, for which Burns and Convertino provided bass and percussion. According to Convertino, one of the main reasons they turned to Foster was his song-crafting ability.

"In the past, Joey and I would say, 'Let's do this song and then do an instrumental to reflect on the one with words,'" Convertino says. "On Garden Ruin, J.D. helped us bring all of that together within each song."

Sometimes these new touches are subtle -- disc-opener "Cruel" may make use of Calexico's typical two-horn attack, but here the trumpets are Memphis soul rather than mariachi. The band revisits its jazz roots on "Lucky Dime," but the counter-harmonies are more inspired by Abbey Road-era Beatles. And while "Panic Open String" includes a gorgeous cello outro that would have fit nicely on Hot Rail, the song's textured production recalls recent tourmate Wilco's Summer Teeth.

The trio of songs truly established Garden Ruin as a new direction for Calexico. In sound and words they summarize the fear and angst that comes with life during the fist-first, damn-the-environment, money-over-people Bush era. "Letter to Bowie Knife" opens with an insistent, skittish riff before detonating into Built to Spill-style guitar pyrotechnics with the rich, tidal tempos of Arthur Lee's Love (whose "Alone Again, Or . . ." Calexico frequently covers). "Deep Down" builds into an ominous crescendo from the opening couplet, four layers of guitars riding Convertino's cymbal crashes -- a memorable contrast with Burns' pleading refrain, "Deep down you know it's evil/You've always known."

Finally, disc-ender "All Systems Red" flashes like a warning beacon, capturing the frustration and resignation of the record's title. Against a steadily quickening tempo, Burns notes the lure of leaving it all behind and scattering "like paper in the eye of the storm" as the "numbers rise on the death toll," adding in the song's soaring, nearly Radiohead-like crescendo, "When the dread is flowing through my veins/I want to tear it all down and build it up again."

"We are trying to do what we can in the music and lyrics to help people relate to the frustration that's been present since Bush became president," Convertino says. "I don't think we have ever had such political thoughts going through our brains in the process of making a record as we have had with this one. There are monsters lurking all over [Garden Ruin], even in the pretty bits."