This isn't the same Calexico that's been lurking around the music scene for the past 10 years, standing partly in the shadows of Howe Gelb as his backing band, or the eclectic duo prone to mariachi static and Tex-Mex/spaghetti-Western rubdowns. No, Joey Burns and John Convertino have made a radical and welcome shift, adding a few friends for the extra heavy-lifting duties. For their fifth studio album, they've entered the overcrowded realm of the sensitive alt-country singer-songwriter sweepstakes, where heartbreak is always just a sweeping pedal-steel riff away.
Except that, unlike the opportunistic Brooklyn Cowboys, who are likely to shift allegiance to the echoed goth of Joy Division should this Interpol craze ever spark a couple of feasible monthly music mags, Calexico has this music written deep in its Tucson, Ariz., soul. (This album was recorded in both Tucson and Brooklyn.) You can tour these boys out of the desert, but they'll always find a way to go home again. Don't tell them they can't, because there's a shockingly tender grace to these luminous tunes. Perhaps they were inspired by their pairing with Sam Beam, who does business as Iron and Wine, on last year's critically hailed In the Reins, but something beyond just hiring producer JD Foster (Richmond Fontaine, Richard Buckner) has helped these boys locate the somber grace they've previously only hinted at.
Songs alternately inspired by the artistic milieu of Bisbee, Ariz., and the current U.S. political situation create a mild tension. "Letter to Bowie Knife" comes cranking out of the gate with the sort of backfiring power you'd expect out of an old El Camino, and "Roka" opens with the lonely strokes of the desert echoing in its tremolo'd guitar; but mostly Garden Ruin opts for a conversational melodicism that channels Vic Chesnutt at his most spare and focused. "Panic Open String" and "Yours and Mine" walk the line between elegant chamber pop and deep-rooted C&W, while the ambient distorted guitars of "Deep Down" create a buzz that's the pure feeling of letting your head whip in the wind as you ride down the open highway.