When a band starts out with an aesthetic as specific as Calexico's, sometimes expanding that sound means incorporating more pop elements into it. And, after years of being known -- accurately or not -- as the indie-mariachi band, Calexico may have felt boxed in by their very distinctiveness. Like Feast of Wire, Garden Ruin finds them moving further into more song-based, immediately accessible territory (their collaborations and performances with bands like Wilco and Iron & Wine may have also inspired them to tone down their theatricality). With no instrumentals -- a first on a Calexico album -- and less emphasis on elaborate arrangements, Garden Ruin presents an almost mainstream version of Calexico, with mixed results. At times, as on "Yours and Mine," the band strays toward typical alt-country and ends up sounding overly restrained and mature. However, the beautiful melodies on "Panic Open String" and "Bisbee Blue" (a warm little love song to Bisbee, AZ, where the album was recorded) and the '70s singer/songwriterisms of "Lucky Dime" prove that the band can bend pop to Calexico's sound instead of vice versa. Though Joey Burns' whispery vocals help make Garden Ruin feel initially more hushed than it actually is, it becomes clear as the album unfolds that Calexico haven't completely abandoned their flair for striking arrangements and drama. They've just channeled it in different directions. "Cruel" -- whose lyrics deal with environmental corruption -- nods to the classic Calexico sound with its swooning pedal steel, brass, and strings, while "Roka" is a haunted yet sexy-sounding duet that echoes the band's most stunning moments. "Letter to Bowie Knife" (which sounds like a kissing cousin to their fantastic cover of Love's "Alone Again Or?") marries lyrics like "This world's an ungodly place" to a buoyant melody, one of Calexico's time-tested tricks. Likewise, the gentlest, most intimate ballad is called "Smash" -- but even this relatively quiet song has thunderous timpani rolling in the distance. The band also rocks more than it has in the past, earnestly on "Deep Down" and with real anguish on Garden Ruin's striking final track, "All Systems Red." Ultimately, this album ends up being a more naturalistic take on Calexico's sound; just because it's less stylized doesn't mean it's less interesting -- it just takes a little more time for Garden Ruin's power to reveal itself.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares