alexico has been a band of setting, their Southwestern sound developing as a unique voice that takes on both political and personal concerns. With Garden Ruin, the group begins to leave that context behind, striding from their localized sound to a more encompassing one, seemingly in response to the global concerns that root this disc's ideology. At its best, Calexico does expand, opening the range of sounds to provide for new colors of expression; when it doesn't work, that open sound means a turn toward the basic, allowing prettiness to get in the way of sonic content.
The album closes on one of its finest statements, "All Systems Red," which represents the overarching drive of this album, and the band with all systems not red, but nervously go. Anxiousness twists through Garden Ruin, and this track builds upon that feeling—offering rage, hope, and despair as outcomes—in a way that shows what the larger disc should have done as a whole.
The performance starts quietly, meditating on the state of the union and recovering from the shudder that the morning news induces. Calexico gradually builds around Joey Burns's hurt voice, coming to a head just as he spells out his ultimate frustration: "And the words forming barely have a voice / It's just your heart that's breaking without choice." The group, aided by increasing noise and disarray, turns the routine dismay at the news into geopolitical angst, and when Burns sings, "I want to tear it all down and build it up again," you know they’ve already started the process.
For all the sublime pathos in that number (sounding in a new way like the old band who gave us "Washed my face in the rivers of empire"), too many tracks, especially at the disc's beginning, pass through forgettably. "Cruel" and "Yours and Mine" benefit from sounding distinctly like the result of a Calexico vision, but both remain too unobtrusive and too pretty without exploring their innately sharp images. These songs have better performances awaiting them.
It takes until "Letter to Bowie Knife," the album's fifth song, before Calexico sounds like they're hitting their songs with the vigor and individuality they deserve, rather than just offering "good" music. Tying the phrase "This world's an ungodly place" with one of the album's heaviest guitar chords as well as a jump-y lead part spins the album to its side, unveiling cruel violence through both literal and sonic measures. The song remains a slice of friendly pop, but it turns Garden Ruin from a place decayed into vegetation destroyed, which makes the musical side of this album more fitting the emotional turmoil underpinning Calexico's writing.
After that track, the group gives us a dance of death and some bravado in the face of loss before playing "Smash," in which, appropriately for this album's worldview, smashing might be an option for improvement. This performance's loveliness works better than that of the earlier tracks, revealing rage itself ruined. The singular presentation announces the cycle of destruction that pins down efforts at revolution (personal or political), the attempts at building a sustained drive ultimately undercut by the self-defeating nature of destruction, until the narrator must finally acknowledge, "And every time this happens / It gets harder and harder to build back again."
An intelligent unknowing (and not an indecisive or unconsidered one) permeates Garden Ruin. Calexico's narrators face an unconquerable world but won't quite give up hope, sometimes even when they're down to reliance on a "sign or a lucky dime." At its best, the band reveals this trouble through tense music and expressive presentations. When uncertain lives meet assured music, the songs take on a distinct existence. The disc doesn't do all the way through, but enough of these songs hit on a second listen, the less heated numbers return as unfired flint rather than useless rock.