In the Reins – Calexico/Iron and Wine
Once a week when I was a kid, Whipple and I would mount our rusty, half-ton Huffy dirt bikes and swerve the mile and a half through the neighborhood to the Stop & Go, heaving futilely to bunny hop our leaden steeds, claiming various super powers, running our gums about the girls who were yards
beyond our geeky grasps. We'd lean our bikes against the befouled and blistered trashcan out front, cross from the sodden heat of Houston into the crisp cool of the convenience store and attack the spinning rack of comics: Daredevil, Spidey, Green Lantern, Batman, Avengers, Flash, Moon Knight.
The economics of allowance made us discerning. We had an order of operations. We always took Daredevil and Spidey, but then we were down to tough decisions. Groups like the Avengers or the Justice League gave you more bang for your buck. Batman on his own was hard to resist, but he lost out to
the duos: Batman and Superman, Green Lantern and Green Arrow, Powerman and Iron Fist. Two, quite simply, was greater than one.
I can't pretend I wasn't giddy at the promise of an Iron and Wine/Calexico pairing. Giddy doesn't cover it really; I nearly wet myself. Not much has seen more consistent airplay in our family than these two over the past year. My fascination with Iron and Wine's Sam Beam has perhaps as much to do with the baby girl sleeping down the hall (for whom the hushed quiet of his elegies and meditations serve as lullabies) as it does his carefully constructed tales of love, death, and redemption. And, in my book, Calexico at its best — the Mingusian, brassy swagger or sun-blasted spaghetti
western or Southwestern dub or dusty waltzes — is tough to top. While Joey Burns continues to improve as a songwriter in his own right, it's often the intensely visual instrumental work that resonates more deeply. It's expansive; it's sweeping; it's landscape music.
As the story goes, Beam hoped to have Calexico, Arizona's border-straddling collective, back his home-recorded debut The Creek Drank the Cradle. Though The Creek… was probably better served by the lo-fi mystique that surrounded it, In the Reins proves exactly how right his
instincts were. On first listen, this seven song collection of Beam originals bears his stamp so strongly that it's easy to negate or even overlook Calexico's contributions, but the Arizonans emerge slowly on repeated spins. Pedal steel permeates the session, but it's the muted trumpet of "Burn
That Broken Bed," the brassy bounce of "History of Lovers," and the murky keys of "He Lays In the Reins" that bring the songs to life. Given Beam's penchant for layering his vocal tracks, it takes a while as well to realize how much Joey Burns contributes through harmony. He follows closely the
model of Beam's work, but his voice is clear where Beam's is fuzzy, crisp where Beam's is pliant.
Vocally, the work here is slightly richer than Beam's previous output, and it's never more evident than on the communal, hymn-like "Dead Man's Will." The song finds a man looking back from the far
side of the grave with regret, trying futilely to make amends, sending forth the love he buried inside in his now book-ended life. The voices float up and above, bathing the tracks, but it's John Convertino's marimba that makes it damn near perfect. The bulk of Convertino's work as a
percussionist seems to occur before recording. His greatest gift as a musician is his ability to select the instruments for a given track. While many drummers sit down behind a kit to figure out how to play, I imagine Convertino walking into his giant, heavily-protected, percussion vault
and deciding what to play.
And that's the key really, tasteful addition. Calexico takes Beam's tracks and, in every case, finds a way to improve on an already strong song. There isn't a dud in the bunch (though the organ sound on "Red Dirt" is a little too "Dirty Laundry" for my tastes). As a friend said, the
collaboration works so seamlessly that there's really no new product, no fresh take, no new compound created. Calexico makes Beam's work better in every way, and that is no mean feat. The strength of some collaborations comes from the push, pull, and compromise – the resolution after conflict.
These musicians dovetail seamlessly, symbiotically. This isn't Batman and Superman, but Batman and Robin, and it's beautiful every carefully considered step of the way.