Calexico has always been best when it slips the leash. The group’s best albums are studded with brief, weird interludes of dub, jazz and unclassifiable experiment. John Convertino and Joey Burns’ most hummable songs contain oblique but jarring imagery. The weakest Calexico records – still pretty good – hew too closely to the middle of the road, populated solely with lapidary-polished cuts of AAA-friendly melody.
The good news is that Carried to Dust is a damned fine Calexico record. It is not as startling as 2003’s Feast of Wire or 1998’s The Black Light, but it is unpredictable and contrary. Where the band’s last record, Garden Ruin, seemed relentlessly on message and disappointingly conventional, Carried to Dust represents a refreshing return to eccentricity.
There is time and room here for intervals like "Sarabande in Pencil Form," just Burns and Convertino trading flurries of guitar for martial snare rolls, and for the jazz-tinged "Bend in the Road,” Paul Niehaus' sweet pedal steel hacked into Cubist bits by abstract rhythms. The band allows sometime collaborators to lead them in under-explored directions, like on the pure country of "Slowness,” Burns' duet with Pieta Brown, or the eerie electronic haze of "Contention City,” the track with Doug McCombs of Brokeback and Tortoise. They cede the mic to any number of people –Sam Beam, Amparo Sanchez and Jairo Zavala among them – and permit these voices to shape their songs.
And yet throughout all this, the band remains quintessentially Calexico, the border town syncretism of the name implied in the mix of rock, jazz, folk, country and Latin music. The disc opens with "Victor Jara's Hands,” riding Western-style over shaken percussion, asymmetrically placed rimshots and tense figures of guitar. The song is about a musician and activist murdered by the Chilean state police in 1973, exactly the kind of just cause that has always gotten Calexico going. Restraint, skill, rage at injustice and sudden flowering into melody - it's Calexico’s best formula. The album is mixed for remarkable clarity, the softer sounds of voice, string bass and acoustic guitar always audible even when juxtaposed with electric instruments.
The problem with Carried to Dust is that some of the songs are especially reminiscent of Feast of Wire - "Victor Jara's Hands" of “Quattro (World Drifts In)," "The New About William" of "Across the Wire,” and "Fractured Air" of "Dub Latina.” Still, these similarities seem more like a band re-exploring and expanding older ideas than any kind of retread. And anyway, if the worst you can say about an album is that it reminds you of other songs that you know and love, how bad is that? This is Calexico the way it ought to be, fiddling with expectations and ignoring the rules of genre. It's good to see them back.