Believe it or not, the best CD of the year doesn’t come from one band; instead it comes from two extremely good bands, Iron & Wine and Calexico. And even though at just seven songs, “In the Reins” is more mini-album than full-length CD, the experience of listening to it is like stumbling into a dusty bar, sunlight streaming in through dirty windows, ordering a beer, closing your eyes and letting yourself drift into Southwestern-flavored daydreams.
Somewhat like a Cormac McCarthy novel (which Calexico’s Joey Burns and Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam both admit to being fans of) the songs are sparsely written, populated by troubled figures and capture the precariousness of living on borders (whether they be physical or emotional).
Burns said both bands’ emphasis on minimalism and use of space is the bridge that connected them. The bands are both genre-benders, which is part of the reason that bringing them together produces such an interesting mix. Calexico are known for blending jazzy-rock with traditional Mexican music. Iron & Wine is known for its sparse folk and Sam Beam’s almost-whispered-at-times vocals. Together, however, they’ve created a CD that is unlike both of their separate efforts.
Burns credited Overcoat Records’ Howard Greynolds with bringing the two bands together. Greynolds also arranged the collaboration between Tortoise and Will Oldham. And supposedly these albums are just two of a series of collaborations between different bands.
Though the songs are Beam compositions, Beam, Burns and Calexico’s Paul Niehaus talked over how they wanted to present them. Burns said that spontaneity was the key. They wanted to see what would happen in the studio and sometimes decided in the spur of the moment to change things up. With the poppy “A History of Lovers” (Iron & Wine fans have never heard Sam Beam sound so peppy), the guys started by just adding Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela on trumpets, but then realized they still wanted more to the sound, so added sax, too. The pure pop they ended up with surprised both bands. Burns credited the collaboration with getting them try things they wouldn’t have.
With “Burn that Broken Bed,” Burns and the Calexico crew thought the song cried out for a muted trumpet, vibes and a slide guitar and created a jazzy, swirling mural of sound. On the opening track, “He Lays in the Reins,” mariachi singer Salvador Duran bursts in with vocals that contrast with Beam in a way that’s both startling and completely marvelous, and appropriate to the song.
Burns said this collaboration is a one-time thing, at least for now. Both collaborators want to retain the special quality of it, he explained. This means one thing to me: the joint Calexico/Iron & Wine tour is a must-see.
Burns said the tour will feature their joint songs, as well as sets by both bands. They are hoping that local guest vocalists, musicians and even poets will join in throughout the tour. And for those of you in Portland, Joey mentioned The Shins’ James Mercer as someone they might call on — man, what a show that would be. They just want it to be a free-flowing mix of music and words. They’ll be hauling out the trumpets, a slew of guitars, a violinist, a projectionist and, if Duran can get his visa issues settled, he’ll be there, too. There’s a good chance these shows will sell out, so buy your tickets now. (Tour info can be found here: http://www.casadecalexico.com/toursearch.php).
Next up for Calexico is a collaboration with Ric Ocasek. Burns said that he and the band love to collaborate (they also played on the Los Super Seven project, which is well worth a listen) and that it’s a way of giving something back to themselves — it sparks creativity for everyone in the band and makes them want to try things that they otherwise wouldn’t.
Well, if this is what collaboration did for these two bands, I hope Greynolds is able to put a lot more unlikely pairings together.