Calexico / Iron & Wine
In The Reins
This is such a short but sweet little record matching up two artists so well, two that frankly I thought would not really mesh, I am compelled to bypass my usual faux-philosophical masturbatory invocation and just get to the review. But just this once...
On this second EP in a row from Miami's number one film-professor-with-a-secret, Sam Beam links the Iron and Wine train with tour mates and desert pop surrealists Calexico who add some distinctive flavor to his trademark soft voiced folk-rock-splendour. On the opening track, "He Lays in the Reins" we can see perhaps the finest fruits of this conjoined labor. Beams fingerpicked twinkle is augmented by a clockwork of percussion and sprinkled piano, sounding like a bar band caught playing in an introspective mood in a windstorm. The slide guitar work is majestic and soulful and an operatic mariachi singer pops up at one point in the swirl, transcending any kitsch usually inherent in such a move (Calexico is down solid with the mariachi). To steal a line from Daniel Johnston, it sets my my heart on fire with lust, its so fat and beautiful. "Prison on Route 41" follows closer to the Iron and Wine protocol of bittersweet memories of a hard childhood, with some excellent banjo and harmonica augmentation.
"A History of Lovers" is a great little country rocker. I really never thought there would be an Iron and Wine song you could dance to, but here it is. The horns that kick in at the end are just perfect. I've always liked Calexico for their sense of texture and arrangement, but the guy that songs for them never did it for me, and while Sam's sex whisper is not maybe the thing I was looking for, it runs like a train on this album. "Red Dust" transmutes Beam's subdued hoedown into a delicious cataclysmic blues jam with a magnificent instrumental break in the middle haunting enough to scare the ghosts off. "Sixteen, Maybe Less" has that Roy Orbison torchlit atmosphere, replacing Roy's falsetto with Mr. Beam's. "Burn that Broken Bed" (best song title of the year) sounds like a remake of one of his earlier songs, but I cant place it, but no matter. The muted trumpet wafting through the jangle makes all that irrelevant. Finally the ballad "Dead Man's Will" which falls around you like a heavy rain with its hum and xylophones and whatnot may just be the best song in the Iron and Wine canon, deftly mixing his early lo-fi technique and new studio mastery. Its hard to say whether its the songs, the players or the staggeringly effective production on this thing are the real stars, since they all intermingle to create some perfect music. I've heard it said that "Yesterday" is the world's most perfect match between music and lyrics (whatever. what about "Search and Destroy?" what about "Paint it Black?" what about "Here Comes a Regular?" Fucking boring ass Beatles, hogging all the superlatives), but I think it can't hold its scrambled eggs against "Dead Man's Will."
When I started listening to this thing, I'll admit I felt a little betrayal - I felt some ownership over Sam's soft spoken songs shattering the wilderness and was dismayed that he was going to forsaken that for crass "instrumentation." Richard Buckner and Lucinda Williams both have done it to me in the past - gone on and pursued their precious little muse and not made the stripped down albums I wanted them to make. I know! They have some nerve. But now, I give Iron and Wine the greenlight to go ahead in this direction, or any direct he wants, because he makes beautiful powerful stuff. This EP is the soundest 10 bucks you will spend this year.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com