Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino have spent 10 years writing mood music that runs the gamut from Ennio Morricone imitations to jazzy Latin experiments to dense psychedelia. So it may seem out of character that they've ditched most of that in favor of dark, somber diatribes about the state of the world on their newest album, Garden Ruin.
But it's not. Burns contends the band has been working toward this sort of political statement for years. It's just been hard to notice. Spaghetti-western-surf-rock instrumentals tend to overshadow politics.
"Something like Garden Ruin can't be forced," he says. "It has to come naturally. No matter what you write about-politics or love-it has to be real. You can always tell the songs that are dripping with fakeness."
The bassist-guitarist-vocalist started working with percussionist Convertino as the rhythm section for How Gelb's band, Giant Sand. With Calexico, the duo created a Tucson-based collective of eccentric talents around them, often focusing more on style and feel than actual songs. Not with Garden Ruin. Musically, the album embraces their familiar Southwestern twang. But after touring and recording with Iron & Wine's Sam Beam (for last year's In the Reins), their songwriting shows not only a sharper alt-country focus, but also a pop sensibility that brings to mind British invasions, James Taylor folk and Neil Young ballads.
Yet it's not the music that makes Garden Ruin so fresh-it's the message. On "Deep Down," Burns sings, "While you're out there they'll make the pitch/To rally the troops and make a huge contribution/To help push this through/Deep down you know it's evil." Though a clear attack on President Bush, it's also a catalog of the diverse emotions that surround the so-called war on terror.
"It's a complex song both politically and emotionally," says Burns. "Our lives are not just one-sided. We have friends or members of our family that don't agree with our politics. And even in the band there are differences of opinions. It's never as simple as it may seem."
Because Calexico feeds off complexity, the album isn't solely a Bush bash. On "Roka," Burns and Spanish vocalist Amparo Sanchez converse via a duet about the intricacies of immigration. "Cruel" is one part twisted love song, two parts requiem for the environment.
Then there's the album's climax, "All Systems Red," a six-minute blast of anger. Here Burns sings: "Nothing changes here and nothing improves/All say my friends who just want out."
The band wrestled with what to do with the song, and it almost didn't make the final cut. On an album of folky ballads, the emotionally wrecked rant definitely sticks out.
"In the end, we had to put it on the record because it was such an important song to us personally," Burns says. "It's a great way to end the record, a great way to express a dynamic that hadn't been expressed anywhere on the album. It was the one serious contrast that needed to be there."
Burns and Convertino remain a formidable rhythm section for hire-surrounding the Garden Ruin sessions they worked with Neko Case and Gotan Project-but now they're developing as a band. It will probably be some time before they're ready to make the album's sequel, but it's nice to know they've got a lot more to offer than Spaghetti westerns in them.
Calexico plays with Pieta Brown at the Belly Up on June 12. $16-$18. Doors open at 8 p.m. 858-481-8140.