Saturday, November 19, 2005

Some long overdue music writing

The Calexico and Iron and Wine collaboration In the Reins is a near perfect marriage, rich intricate music, subtle lyrics and all sorts of harmonies across the board.

Think of it as a grapefruit-cactus record, players from the sunny, bright lands of spring training finally getting together.

I’m an Iron and Wine novice, but close to a Calexico expert, so what I hear most is Calexico breathing a new life into Sam Beam’s tunes, taking the skeletal chord arrangements and melodies and dressing it all up. No other band could back Beam like this, melting themselves nearly away to fit perfectly with the front man. It’s a Calexico record like you can tell Richard Buckner’s Devotion + Doubt or Neko Case’s Blacklisted is.

Calexico’s “Southwestern” sound is played up too much in national articles or record reviews. They’re almost written off as a novelty in that respect and while in some senses the label is accurate, it misses what the band does best: embrace versatility. The horns and mariachi are just a small part of the band, which keeps drifting further from the hyphenised descriptions they’ve been given before, and even from the “desert noir” tag. Calexico has grown from a Giant Sand side project, through all the easy descriptions, to emerge as one of the most talented, unique bands around today, indie or not.

Perhaps the most apt comparison now for Calexico would be to the Band. They’re a group of incredibly talented musicians, feeding off older sounds and spinning and weaving it all together into an unmistakably singular sound. They can back anyone, with incredible skill and selflessness. Of course, Calexico is a much looser arrangement than the Band, and nearly entirely lacking the crazy personalities, but musically they’re cousins beyond a doubt.

Joey Burns holds court, a versatile guitarist and the band’s essential visionary. John Convertino is the most distinctive drummer I’ve ever heard. He gives the snare a “pop” that nobody else can come up with. And the rest of the players fill it all in perfectly.

“He Lays in the Reins” is a perfect opener, perhaps the most “Calexico” of the seven-song EP. It has the same kick and urgency of “Alone Again Or” from Convict Pool and “Sunken Waltz” from Feast of Wire. And then Salvador Duran breaks in, the first signal that the album is full of surprises, things that at first glance might seem out of place, but in the end give the album its texture, its uniqueness.

“Prison on Route 41” is a straight-forward folk stomp, mid-tempo. The narrator has let his family more or less rot in prison for the sake of a woman. It’s a sad tale, rendered with banjo and harmonica, with the strongest country undercurrent of the record.

“A History of Lovers” is harmony like they used to do it, peppy, bright and given great bounce by head-nodding horns. The darkness of the lyrics juxtaposed only lend the song a more interesting aura. Beam’s writing is near it’s strongest here, taking a love-triangle story song nearly into Dylan territory.

The blues-boogie of “Red Dust” was the toughest act to settle into on the album, seemingly out of place, a dusty Southern track that might fill the “rowdy” slot on a Lucinda Williams record. But it sinks in. The sound is the furthest from either band, yet more evidence of the enriching nature of the entire project.

“Sixteen, Maybe Less” returns to more of an Iron and Wine style tune, lyrics turning heartbreaking, far more whispered than sung.

“Burn that Broken Bed” is where the trumpets rule. Muted and haunting, I’m never quite certain when they’re going to come in or fade out. It’s that uncertainty, that suspense, that really drives the song. Again, it’s a touch that only Calexico could add.

“Dead Man’s Will” closes the album and just may be the strongest track. The poignant, simple lyrics are haunting. It’s timeless and heartfelt, something Woody Guthrie could’ve written. And the high praise is warranted. It’s the most stripped song, but again it’s so much more than simply Beam’s fingerpicked guitar that defines his other records.

Time runs as a theme through the album, with Beam musing on losses and regrets, with soft, slow tunes and minor keys rounding it out. But the difference from his Iron and Wine records is the fullness of the sound. Quiet doesn’t mean sparse, or singular, as anyone who’s spent any time sitting in a lawn chair in the sunshine in the middle of a forest can tell you. It’s that quiet that opens the ears up to all the different little sounds, and lets each one reach its full potential, making the whole mix better.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the record probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near as strong if it wasn’t recorded in Tucson. It has that mystery in sound that so many of this town’s records have. There’s always an instrument in the mix that you wouldn’t expect, always a turn seemingly out of character for the performers.

When the bands got together in concert, it was a nearly five-hour event, a full set from each, then a set together, with the EP played in its entirety, plus a few covers including: “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Wild Horses.” At one point I think there were 12 people on stage. Incredible.

I’d like to see another collaboration, but not for a while. Let each band grow and evolve and change and then get back together. I could guarantee the sound wouldn’t be anywhere near the same. And that’s the strength of all the players.

In the Reins ranks among the best albums of the year, and is probably in a class by its own as far as indie collaborations go.

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