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CALEXICO - June 20 - Vancouver


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No easy answers

By john lucas

Publish Date: 15-Jun-2006

MUS_Calexico1_2008.jpg

Joey Burns figures some people have the wrong idea of what Calexico’s all about. The Tucson, Arizona–based band—which centres on the singing and multi-instrumental work of Burns and the distinctively subtle drumming of John Convertino—is cemented in some folks’ minds as an act whose specialty is dusty-streets spaghetti-Western twang with a muy caliente side order of trumpet-powered mariachi. Those elements have certainly been prominent throughout the group’s decade-long existence, but a deeper exploration of Calexico’s records reveals a restless spirit just as drawn toward drunken waltzes as it is to Latin-spiced dub.

“I’ve gotta say, we’re always about changing and trying new things,†Burns says, reached at home in Tucson. “We don’t really have a formula. I think in some ways we’re written off for being formulaic, even though there’s a wide variety of influences, ranging from jazz to indie rock or singer-songwriter influences or regional, Southwestern influences. We’ve kind of been written off as one-dimensional.â€

Whatever your preconceived notions about Calexico might be, prepare to toss them aside before listening to the band’s latest album, Garden Ruin. The new disc’s 11 tracks carry traces of the aforementioned styles, but instead of jumping between genres, Burns, Convertino, and their cohorts have incorporated their various influences into something closer to a unified style, with Burns’s gently insistent crooning at the forefront. If Garden Ruin comes across as akin to a singer-songwriter album, it’s no surprise to hear what the frontman has been listening to lately: a list of tunesmiths that ranges from veterans such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young to relative newcomers like Sufjan Stevens and Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam (with whom Calexico recorded an EP last year).

Not that Calexico’s shift of focus was a conscious effort to emulate those artists. “We’d set out to do something different. We just didn’t know what it was going to be,†Burns says, noting that producer JD Foster helped the group—which tours as a sextet—home in on Garden Ruin’s aesthetic. He also brought a sense of discipline to the process. The result is Calexico’s most consistent effort to date, one that, surprisingly, features no instrumental numbers, which are usually a staple of the band’s records. That, as Burns acknowledges, can make a Calexico disc feel more like the score to a nonexistent film than a collection of songs by a band.

“It is interesting,†he says. “Once you don’t have the instrumentals, that kind of idea of a storyboard or soundtrack undercurrent is gone. There is a wide variety of topics in the lyrics. It’s not like it’s a Buck Owens record, where every song is about heartbreak.â€

Some might argue that Garden Ruin is indeed a set of songs about heartbreak—not the romantic sort, but the kind that stems from the awareness that these are dark days, and that solutions aren’t easy to come by. On “Cruelâ€, for instance, Burns sings about the “torturous ways†of a “cruel, heartless reign/Chasing short-term gains/Right down to the warning signsâ€. But far from being a litany of political slogans, Garden Ruin is about the toll taken on fragile human beings who must live and love and work in a time when, as Burns puts it on “Deep Downâ€, “numbers matter more than the heartâ€.

“There’s an abstractness, I think,†the singer says. “I tried to not make these songs preachy or one-dimensional.â€

Perhaps the most powerful song on Garden Ruin is “Roka (Danza de la Muerte)â€, on which Spanish chanteuse Amparo Sánchez adds her mournful voice to an elegy for those who have sought a better life on the more prosperous side of the U.S.–Mexico border but have instead found death in a parched no man’s land.

“What I think is an outrage is the fact that there are innocent people dying out there,†he says. “It’s an outrage that it’s okay to have militant societies making arrests on immigrants entering into countries illegally, but it’s not okay for citizens to save the lives of people who would otherwise die out there. Recently in the news, just late last year, there were two individuals who were going down to the border and restocking some water into these water tanks that are there to help immigrants who could be dying of dehydration. They saw an immigrant coming out of the brush, maybe coming up from Mexico. I don’t know if he was Mexican or South American or Central American. They took him to the hospital immediately and saved his life. Soon thereafter, the two were arrested and charged with smuggling an illegal alien.â€

Burns has visited this topic before, on such songs as “Across the Wire†and “Crystal Frontierâ€, and it is one that he never fails to speak about with eloquence and passion in equal measures. The fact that he brings just as much fire to his music should be all the recommendation anyone needs to forget everything they think they know about Calexico, and approach Garden Ruin with fresh ears.

Calexico plays the Commodore Ballroom on Tuesday (June 20).

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