You can't judge a book by its cover. I know that. You know that. We all learned this simple idea back in 3rd grade. It's true that we never know what to expect from Tuscon's Calexico. The Hot Rail, the band's 2000 release, and Even My Sure Things Fall Through, the band's 2001 EP, are both influenced by mariachi and the rhythms and culture of Mexico. It's spaghetti western music that isn't really spaghetti western music. If you're not a fan of Calexico, you can't argue the fact that that they have a little Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass Band in them, and there's obviously nothing wrong with that. (The reason there's nothing wrong with that is because Herb Albert produced one of the greatest album covers of all time.
Alright, sorry, back to the rant I started about not being able to judge a book by it's cover. The last time I heard Calexico was on their collaboration with the angelic Sam Beam of Iron and Wine on the In The Reins EP. It's pretty hard to deny the beauty of Sam Beam's guitar playing and voice, and when accented subtly by Calexico's horns, steel guitar, and guest operatic voices, the Iron and Wine sound came alive like it had never before. Because of the dark sounds of In The Reins, I thought for sure that the cover of Calexico's new album, Garden Ruin, would be a dark, Poe-influenced, heart breaker of an album. From first listen, you know that this isn't the same band you heard on Even My Sure Things Fall Through. Instead of being the heartbreaking work of staggering genius that I thought this album would sound like because of the large crow (or maybe raven, I don't really know) on the cover, it is a pretty straightforward rock record.
"Cruel," the album's opener, sounds like a Jay Farrar song from his Uncle Tupelo era. The rest of the album plays very similar to this. "Panic Open String," "Lucky Dime," and "Smash" sound like outtakes from Wilco's Summer Teeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and I don't mean to say this as a bad thing.
The album's closer, "All Systems Red," begins as an ode to CSNY, and ends as a mess of a beautifully controlled chaos. It is the coda of the album, but also the song in which the band reaches perfection. It's one of the best album closers you could ever hope for. It's a song that brings the previous 10 to life and understanding.
With a band like Calexico who has been around for a long time and jumped around genres so much, their jump to a rock band cannot be considered a poke at imitation. It's rather a step into another unknown realm whose possibility of succeeding or failing is one in the same. Calexico doesn't seem to fail at anything they do, and they probably never will.