Joey Burns is a very busy man. The co-leader of Southwestern rock alchemists Calexico has been writing the soundtrack for an upcoming Taylor Hackford film, recording an in-studio set for a Tucson radio station and preparing to support the band's latest album, "Carried to Dust," with a tour that stops at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood tonight.
That doesn't take into account all the production work and guest spots that have borne Calexico's sun-baked fingerprints in recent years -- such as recording with Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven, a collaborative EP with delicate folk merchants Iron & Wine and backing a host of rock glitterati on the soundtrack for Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan biopic "I'm Not There."
The harried pace must suit Burns and drummer John Convertino, who founded Calexico more than 10 years ago after first meeting as members of the experimental desert-rock combo Giant Sand. In the midst of all this frenzy, they've crafted an eclectic album that is being hailed as a return to form two years after their more pop-focused release "Garden Ruin" met with a somewhat mixed reception.
It's a tempting label to apply to "Carried to Dust," which has all the familiar Calexico touchstones: mariachi horns, hip-swiveling south-of-the-border guitar, crisply stenciled cover art from longtime collaborator Victor Gastelum. But Burns would respectfully disagree.
"Every record is a departure," he says. "What amazes me is it's really the same guys for the most part [on both albums], and the majority are the same instruments. But I understand that the production on this record sounds a lot like the previous records. . . . It's low-fi, the vocals are kind of buried in the mix."
"It's like classic-sounding Calexico, what people really expect," adds Duncan Hudson, music director for Tucson's independent radio station KXCI, where "Carried to Dust" has been one of the most popular albums for the last four weeks. " 'Garden Ruin' was a really good record too, but it didn't really capture people because it didn't have as much of what stereotypically people really think about Calexico . . . that atmospheric, Southwestern soundtrack sound."
Written and recorded in Tucson, "Carried to Dust" was born out of long studio sessions between Burns and Convertino. Additional ideas and approaches were then introduced from a Rolodex-worth of their longtime collaborators, including Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, Spanish rock singer Amparo Sánchez and Tortoise's Doug McCombs.
Bound by multiple references toward the romance of the road, the album moves with quiet confidence through some of Burns' most impressionistic lyrics yet. In "Writer's Minor Holiday," a wayward SAG striker embarks on a cross-country journey of discovery. The modern political scene is subtly referenced with the swooning "Victor Jara's Hands" and "The News About William," which conjures haunting images of "second line drums marched into the sea" against a delicate guitar.
Calexico's musically omnivorous take on border-town Americana continues its evolution as the lead single,"Two Silver Trees," introduces a stringed Chinese folk instrument into the mix. Longtime band member Jacob Valenzuela even steps out from behind his trumpet for his first songwriting credit with the Spanish-language ballad "Inspiración."
"He's the only one that was born and raised here in Tucson, so he's the direct link, you know," says Burns, who grew up in Los Angeles.
When Burns talks about his adopted home, a reverence comes over his voice as he considers the city's sense of history and cultural intersections. Burns says the band talked about dedicating the album to his Canadian-born landlord who restored a number of houses in Tucson's historic Barrio Viejo neighborhood and rents them to local artists.
"I bought one of the places and told him, 'Hey, we should pave the sidewalk!' and he said 'No, I like to keep a dirt sidewalk. . . . It's more authentic,' " Burns remembers. "I love that his aesthetics tell him to keep it natural, keep it the way he found it. I kind of relate in some ways to some of the aesthetics we've chosen with the music over the years."