From its beautiful, spray-painted stencil artwork (courtesy of longtime Calexico cover artist Victor Gastelum) to the sounds within it, Carried to Dust recalls previous Calexico high points like The Black Light and, especially, Feast of Wire. Considering that Joey Burns and John Convertino reunited with many of the Feast of Wire players for these songs, the similarities shouldn't come as a surprise -- nor should Calexico's skill at revisiting older territory and finding new outcroppings in it. "Victor Jara's Hands," a tribute to the Chilean poet/musician/political activist who was murdered in 1973, begins Carried to Dust in quintessential Calexico fashion with intricate rhythms from Convertino and swells of mariachi horns, but the guest vocals by Jairo Zavala of the Spanish band Depedro add an extra, eloquent depth. "El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited)" returns to the rhythms and melody of The Black Light's "Trigger," but transforms them into a tense spaghetti western theme.
The thoughtful, whispery pop Calexico dove into on Garden Ruin also gets its due here; unlike that album, which was so gentle that its charms took awhile to unfold, Carried to Dust's quiet moments are often just as vivid as the flamboyant ones. "House of Valparaiso," which features Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, "Writer's Minor Holiday"'s twangy pop, and "Slowness"'s sweetly ambling country duet sound even brighter next to "Inspiracion"'s en Espanol lovelorn drama or "Two Silver Trees"' gorgeously shadowy fusion of Latin and Asian elements -- Calexico is one of a handful of groups that would think of combining Chinese guizeng, Venezuelan cuatro, and omnichord on one song and make all those sounds work together in a completely natural way. Carried to Dust also has subtler moments of innovation, such as "Bend to the Road," which expands on Calexico's southwestern jazz leanings, and "Contention City," a collaboration with Tortoise's Doug McCombs that spins toy piano and electronics into a haunting finale. Carried to Dust isn't just one of Calexico's most expansive albums, it's also their most balanced, channeling their experience and potential into a subtly dramatic, chiaroscuro tour de force. ~ Heather Phares