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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
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The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Fat Possum
Garden Ruin

Rating: 7/10 ?

May 22, 2006
Calexico is dead. Long live Calexico! Or should we now call them Calexicash? To be fair, Garden Ruin could hardly be classified as a sell-out album, but it certainly is popular minded, if not flat out watered down. Times change and apparently so does Calexico.

Yes, the Calexico that we have all come to know and love has apparently evaporated into the sweltering desert air, or perhaps been buried in the sand somewhere down there between the Colorado and the Rio Grande. Although the usual mechanics are still there - from the horns of the album's opener, "Cruel," to the maracas of "Nom de Plume" - Garden Ruin is a complete departure from what most (or this writer at least) were expecting. The band's bloodlines running back to Tijuana Brass and Ennio Morricone have been severed, the Tucson outfit instead nourished by the overtly commercial sounds of Wilco and other indie-Americana white bread rockers. They even ditched their trademark band name font!

In the lead-up to Garden Ruin's release a fair amount of chatter centered around the idea that the album was Calexico's take on pop music but, considering the band's powerful and decidedly un-plain back catalog, I would venture to say the opposite is true. In the wake of Hot Rail and even Feast of Wire - the band's previous long player that in the hindsight afforded by the flashy lights of this recording probably signaled the center-shift to come - one can't help but think that a decade spent churning out a body of creative work that ultimately went unnoticed by commercial music buyers has taken its toll on a group of guys who undoubtedly, like all of us, have bills to pay. It would be absurd to think that Joey Burns and John Convertino headed into the studio with the intention of making a commercial album, but it would be naive to think that stints on the road spent following the busses of Wilco and Lyle Lovett didn't make an impression on the two aging players. Perhaps I'm simply taking Garden Ruin's middle of the road-ness too personally but I'll be damned if this doesn't sound a bit plastic. Garden Ruin is good, but feels a tad bit faked.

Simply put, these 11 tracks scream for the mainstream. The reflective strumming of "Yours and Mine" begs to be included on the soundtrack to some faux-indie Hollywood drama, the swagger of "Letter to Bowie Knife" borders on the excessive, with a Beatles-esque jangle punched up to the redline by reverberated guitars, and the pressurized space-country of the closing "All Systems Red" is pretty but ultimately out of character, its epicness sounding more like an Explosions In the Sky outtake than a Calexico tune. Tracks like this I can handle - it's okay to not sound like Calexico, just don't sound so much like Jeff Tweedy's band!

Connoisseurs of [insert band that sounds like Wilco here] will no doubt appreciate the mimicry of songs like "Bisbee Blue" and, when considering Garden Ruin's iPodding target audience, Calexico will certainly continue to elevate the cultural pedigree of listeners, but for all of their musical competence it seems that Burns and Convertino have elected to take the low road this time around. Make no mistake, Garden Ruin is a solid, well-written album that squishes the Jack Johnsons of the world like a scorpion under the hoof of a wild stallion, but when placed in a shuffled mix it fails to stand out. Garden Ruin is good, but there are a bazillion alt-country Coors rockers who could pull this off, and coming from an outfit with such a remarkable past body of work it is a disappointment.

Reviewed by Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.

See other reviews by Eric J Herboth



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