Sep 10, 2008, 05:34AM

Calexico's Florid Desert

Tucson’s Finest keep on the up and up with their new record, Carried to Dust.

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The boys from Calexico—Tucson, AZ natives Joey Burns and John Convertino—are back at it with their sixth album of distinctly Southwestern indie rock, combining traditional Mexican folk and mariachi music and 90s alt-country, here with guest appearances by Sam Beam, Pieta Brown, and Douglas McCombs (Tortoise). Ever since 2003's Feast of Wire, Calexico has received some glowing press reviews. Their shows at Bonnaroo and All Tomorrow's Parties and their tours with Pavement and Lambchop, not to mention their performances on the soundtrack for I'm Not There, backing-up Jim James, Iron and Wine, Roger McGuinn, and Charlotte Gainsborough, have established their reputation as one of the best indie bands around. It's well earned. Their 2005 album, In The Reins, a brilliant collaboration with Iron and Wine, put the band on the Billboard 200, and (along with the Woman King EP) helped Iron and Wine move toward the more assured sound of The Shepherd's Dog.

Carried to Dust, out September 9 on Touch & Go/Quarterstick Records, will do nothing but help Calexico's reputation. With its love songs and drifter ballads, backed by strings and horns, and Jairo Zavalo's Flamenco guitar stylings, Carried to Dust is, in many ways, a return to the more raucous experimental beauty of Feast of Wire, after 2006's overproduced Garden Ruin. The instrumental songs are back: gentle acoustic songs like "Sarabande in Pencil Form" and "Falling From Sleeves." Half the album, including the first three songs, "Victor Jara's Hands," "Two Silver Trees," and "The News About William," owe more to Feast of Wire than any other album—where Spaghetti Westerns, prairie and tumbleweed, and "Ring of Fire" run straight into Music for the Films of Buster Keaton, Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas, and the haphazard percussion of Tom Waits ("Bend to the Road" could have been a Bone Machine b-side). The duet with Pieta Brown on "Slowness" could have been taken right of Wilco's A.M. or any Whiskeytown album, and "Contention City" highlights the album's subtle Yo La Tengo-like use of electronics.

The politics don't overwhelm on Carried to Dust the way they did on Garden Ruin, and songs like "Victor Jara's Hands," a beautiful ode (the lyrics reminiscent of Jara's own naturalist poetry) to the Chilean musician and political activist who was executed by Pinochet's soldiers, and "House of Valparaiso," written after Burns traveled through South America, don't come off as angry rhetoric. But what really makes this album so strong are the guest appearances. In fact, "Slowness" is such a beautiful song that I wish Pieta Brown was part of the band. Sam Beam adds pleasant background vocals on "House of Valparaiso" and Douglas McCombs brings some lo-fi brilliance to "Contention City." Even Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson's harmonica player for the past few years, adds some gritty flair to "Bend to the Road." Catch a preview of three songs from Carried to Dust on NPR's All Songs Considered, or listen to the whole album on 3VOOR12.

"Two Silver Trees"


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