Calexico has been labeled many different things over the course of its 18-year career. Yet despite the seeming contradictions of classifications ranging from alt-country to indie rock to Mariachi music, Calexico creates continuity through constant allusions — both lyrical and musical — to the American Southwest from which both the band’s name and roots derive. Their latest album, “Carried to Dust,” finds the band once again blending genres and tempos, all the while creating an atmospheric, yet sad and serene piece of artwork.
Calexico, at its core, features guitarist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino, along with collaboration from a diverse range of artists, especially from the band’s hometown of Tucson, Ariz. Besides many of the players from the band’s acclaimed 2003 release “Feast of Wire,” “Carried to Dust” features guest appearances from Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, folk singer Pieta Brown, and Spanish guitarists Amparo Sanchez and Jairo Zavala. These contributors lend authenticity to the band’s genre-dabbling.
“Carried to Dust” opens with one of its strongest tracks, one which helps to establish the variety and balance of the album. “Victor Jara’s Hands,” named after the Chilean social activist and singer-songwriter, is an upbeat Latin-tinged track that showcases much of what makes Calexico unique.
Jacob Valenzuela’s trumpet, which expertly echoes Burns’s raspy voice during the song’s chorus, is a staple of the album, and is a unique asset that separates Calexico from its contemporaries.
The doubled Spanish/English interlude also epitomizes a band that constantly vacillates between Mexican and Americana influences. When Burns sings “All alone and lost / My path is lit by flame / Crossing lands never seen / Crossing rivers of my destiny,” it is almost impossible not to imagine a traveler wandering across the vast expanses of our country’s southern border.
The album is, in fact, filled with allusions to open spaces, with its atmospheric interludes and the recurrence of open-sounding guitar notes. Oftentimes, Burns’s songwriting uses simplicity to create room for each note’s emotional impact to fully resonate.
Another very western motif that the album relies on is that of adventure, with more upbeat songs referencing cowboys and the open road. “El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited),” for example, sees the band returning to an instrumental song, which was noticeably missing from their last album, “Garden Ruin.” A twangy guitar, horns and whistling drive the track on an epic journey, saying more than Burns’s voice could have ever said about adventure and the unknown.
Yet at some points, the album seems too eclectic, too full of ideas and inspiration from the various collaborators. “Inspiracion” adds color with a unique tango-sound, yet seems out of place and is an abrupt change from the rest of the tracks.
The variety of sounds and influences that “Carried to Dust” presents is a breathe of fresh air in today’s monotonous music industry, yet it is overwhelming at times. On the 15-song album, Calexico successfully evokes a distinct mood and setting. But the band is ultimately too fruitful for its own good, as mediocre tracks at the end distract the listener from the album’s central themes.