Calexico’s music is wide open spaces. It’s a trip through Arizona’s Painted Desert. It’s the spare writing of Cormac McCarthy, the wind that breezes through the canyons of Utah. It's the Mexican vaqueros and barbed-wire fences, coming from a place of cowboy boots and the shifting sands of New Mexico. It is music that can suddenly shift from quiet to cinematic. It’s no wonder the band has been sonically compared to Ennio Morricone, that great composer of Spaghetti Westerns. Carried to Dust, Calexico’s sixth proper album continues the band’s tradition of fusing the sounds of the Southwest with indie rock sensibilities.
Earlier records saw Calexico blending instrumental tracks with more traditionally-structured songs. On The Black Light (1998), for example, we don’t even hear Joey Burns’ vocals until the third track. This melding of songs with soundscapes, weird little tracks that incorporate snippets of jazz and dub, had become a staple of Calexico albums. But the band seems to be moving away from experimentation and towards making pop songs. Following their masterpiece Feast of Wire (2003), the band released the conventional Garden Ruin (2006). Though serviceable, the album sounded like the band needed to refocus itself.
While Carried to Dust brings a few new sounds to the table, it is a fine return to what makes Calexico so good. The album kicks off with “Victor Jara’s Hands” and “Two Silver Trees.” Both of these songs encompass the best of Calexico: trembling percussion, whispery vocals, bursts of edgy guitar. The production of the album is impeccable, as Burns’ voice blends perfectly with each sonic element. But the most striking songs are the ones that diverge from previous albums. “Inspiración” is a strange blend of Mariachi horns with a beat that could have easily been cribbed from a Tom Waits album. Meanwhile, the instrumental “El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited)” is a dramatic combination of surf rock and Morricone. It’s music that could accompany any Sergio Leone film, its wild beat the rhythm of horses stampeding through a ghost town as Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef face off over a dead man’s map.
Guest musicians enhance the music on Carried to Dust. Sam Beam offers ethereal backing vocals on the spare “House of Valparaiso” and Tortoise’s Douglas McCombs adds sonic layers and a chilling piano line to the closer “Contention City” that sounds like something from In Rainbows. The vocals hover hauntingly over the atmospheric sounds, the ghost of Calexico floating away from the end of the album. Carried to Dust is a fine entry Calexico's discography that both evokes a much-loved sound from the past and yet looks at the sun fading into the west, turns its horse towards the dying light, and carries on into the future.