The aural equivalent of riding into town on a horse with no name, Calexico’s brand of alt.Tex-Mex has been rounding up posses and cleaning out stink-holes since the early nineties. It’d be nice to say that Garden Ruin, their fifth studio album, sees the band ( Joey Burns and John Convertino perfect it, but if we’re being honest, they pretty much nailed the template about four albums ago.
Which makes Garden Ruin more of the same. Same trumpets parped in from a Mexican border town. Same squelches of pedal steel. Same dusty musical visages. Good as it is, and at their best the windswept, widescreen visions they paint are nothing if not extraordinarily evocative, after a while it all begins to seem a little too refined. You begin to wonder if the dust on their boots is real, or merely spray-on.
At its worst, it feels like coffee table country: Bisbee Blue is Cat Stevens if he’d found a copy of The Good The Bad And The Ugly instead of religion, Panic Open String nicks the chord progression from Wild Horses but none of the outlaw charm, and Nom De Plum’s attempt to take you from home on the range to a smoky French coffee bar on the back of a magic banjo is just a little, uh, weird.
Weird, and the nearest they come to recapturing some of the experimental bits that earlier albums used to spice up the whole enchilada. They don’t lean on the boundaries nearly enough on Garden Ruin.
It is definitely Calexico erring towards pop, and you can’t say it really suits. Lucky Dime is jaunty enough, but plays too much like a bunch of pretty Cali boys pretending to be geeks, losing in the glare of glossy production the low-key, lo-fi charm that you want from a Calexico record.
The album is saved, more or less, from sinking too far into mediocrity by All Systems Red. Both plaintive and fantastically angry, it’s quite staggering. An out-of-nowhere sucker punch, a protest song which recaptures the righteous anger of Dylan and wraps it in a glorious, epic technicolour soundscape.
In the afterglow of it’s brilliance, the whole thing starts look a little better. Cruel is the kind of desert wind blown earnest ballad they do so well, and Yours And Mind has a simple, almost Buckley-esque purity that makes it quite beautiful.
It isn’t like Garden Ruin is a bad album; it runs rings around records that will get four times the airplay and six times the sales, but All Systems Red aside, it never really gets too far off the ground.