In these days of immigration debates, guest worker programs and Minutemen-patrolled Southern borders, Calexico — a band that is, like their native Arizona, bilingual to the extremo — are perhaps the perfect group for these trying times, their dusty mariachi horn flourishes and throaty country ballads the great unifier between immigrant and protectionist, the meek and the powerful.
Such would have been the case eight years ago, back when Calexico mainmen Joey Burns and John Convertino riffed on Morricone and mariachi on the exceptional The Black Light. For Calexico's new album, Garden Ruin (and the Iron & Wine split EP, In the Reins), those border-busting flourishes have been relegated to the periphery as John and Joey apparently awoke one morning to discover that — the hell? — they were two damn fine alt-country songwriters.
The track that best illustrates the charms of Garden Ruin is "Bisbee Blue," an airy ditty without a care on its shoulders. Burns 'voice is coy and sure, and the stripped arrangement suits every bit of it well. And "Letter to Bowie Knife" is as fierce as Calexico will ever get, distorted power chords ringing out like a coyote's call.
That mariachi stuff does make a few cameos, but, for Calexico, its day has passed. The point is, though, that theirs has not — and it's there that Garden Ruin truly begins. Certainly Calexicans who live and die by the vaguely lounge-y stuff will find the less colorful Ruin a bit disconcerting, and yet who among them has had to tour the U.S. playing Morricone variations night after night, undoubtedly feeling like they were trapped in Groundhog Day as directed by Sergio Leone? Not even John Wayne would come back for that, brother.