Calexico leaders Joey Burns and John Convertino have been playing in their signature mariachi-indie-rock-experimental-spaghetti-western-film-noir-soundtrack style since the early ’90s, when they were part of the all-instrumental combo Friends of Dean Martinez. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t changed over the years. Once they took the name Calexico in the middle of that decade, they began slowly working more vocal-oriented songs into their act. And as their popularity grew, so did the number of relatively straightforward pop songs they played. It’s hard to say which came first, the pop or the popularity, but it seems that both reached their apex in 2005 and 2006 when Calexico recorded In the Reins with Iron & Wine and Garden Ruin on their own. The albums had their moments, but both seemed a bit anonymous. They were the only albums in the Calexico catalog that did not feature the distinctive cover art of Victor Gastelum, and the music, too, lacked the qualities that made the rest of Calexico’s work so identifiable.
With last year’s Carried to Dust, Gastelum was back, as were many of the players from 2003’s Feast of Wire. Carried to Dust is more song-oriented than Calexico’s earliest work, but the instrumental passages and dramatic arrangements suggest that Burns and Convertino have finally come to terms with the fact that their experimental side is their stronger suit, and they can leave the singer-songwriter stuff to the Iron & Wines of this world. For a while, Calexico’s more conventional songs seemed at odds with their unconventional style. Here, when a song emerges from the atmosphere-heavy sound, it seems to come naturally.
CALEXICO: Street Scene, Friday, August 28. $65; two-day pass, $122.