Calexico are one of those bands I’ve always thought about listening to, but never actually got round to doing it. They seem to have a load of albums that look the same and I never really knew where to start, so I eventually decided to take a punt on Carried To Dust. I’m not sure whether I’ve chosen the best one or not, but it hasn’t yet inspired me to buy any more by them.
Carried To Dust begins with two of its strongest and most immediate songs. “Victor Jara’s Hands” shuffles things open, building up into a joyous chorus of mariachi horns and wordless vocals, which belies the dark political subject matter of the song (Victor Jara was a Chilean theatre director and musician who was brutally murdered during Pinochet’s coup in 1973 – his hands were broken before he was killed). This leads into “Two Silver Trees”, which moves from “Shakin’ All Over” aping verses to a full, rounded chorus, complete with wailing guitars, accordian and plucked Chinese strings.
Diversity and mastery of instruments is a key feature of Carried To Dust. The onus is on more Latin American styles that make up the “Tex-Mex” sound for which Calexico are probably best known, but whatever instruments are used, they’re always perfectly placed within the overall sound. The intricate layering of the different timbres in songs like “Inspiración” and “The News About William” shows just how much thought and care has gone into how these songs are structured.
While making for a perfect balance, this care and attention gets close to stifling the life out of some songs. “Slowness” is one example – it’s a sweet male-female duet, but the smoothing out of its rough edges and the fine attention to detail in its production means it sounds a bit too sweet, cloying and a little stagnant. This, and a few others, could have done with being a bit looser.
The vocals of lead singer Joey Burns also suffer at times from being relegated to just another instrument. The majority are whispered and get quite monotonous, straying into dangerous Dire Straits territory in “Bend To The Road”. There are times when Burns opens his voice out to good effect, such as on “House of Valparaiso” and “The News About William”, but he doesn’t do it enough for me. This lack of vocal expression, and the lack of looseness in the playing, means that the songs on Carried To Dust sometimes sound a little sterile. That’s not to say that this music isn’t moving though, and the emotion that is wrung out of the horns, strings and steel guitars is at times overwhelming – the dreamy, cold closer “Contention City” shows just how beautifully effective this fine tuning can be.
When I first heard Carried To Dust, I initially wrote it off as quite poor and a bit boring, but I enjoyed it a lot more this time. I listened to it late in the evening, as I was walking home through sleepy Manchester streets and I felt it really suited the time and the place. It’s definitely an evening album, and one that should continue to grow on me. Maybe now I’ll finally be inspired to explore Calexico’s back catalogue a bit further.