Calexico/Iron & Wine
In The Reins
Touch and Go
his collaboration is a contingent affair, that is, Calexico could easily be switched for practically any other outfit salva veritate. Sam Beam’s involvement is the necessary substance giving weight and cohesion to In The Reins, only because his voice is so paradoxically protean yet unmistakably idiosyncratic. Always underlying his performances as Iron and Wine has been an adaptive root, one exhibited most profoundly by the electronic edges of The Woman King EP, which lets him ensconce whatever curious, novel musical elements that emerge under the cool temperature of his vocal performance. His breathy personality on every record can’t suffocate, so instead he merely strums the emotional nodes already present.
In The Reins, mechanically at least, is simply bacchanalian compared to Beam’s singular outputs. Muffled trumpets flutter left and right, steel pedaled electricity juts everywhere, electric guitars slide, and there’s even an appearance by Flamenco guitarist and singer Salvador Duran on “He Lays in The Reins.” Yet all these ingredients are collected and assembled in a completely agreeable manner so that they cohere rather than engage in a harsh kitsch dance on record. The album evidences a mighty concordance that flows naturally from an ironically understated combination.
One example is the use of horns on “A History of Lovers” and again in hushed form on “Burn that Broken Bed.” The former sounded somewhat disappointing upon initial listen since I feared Beam’s delicate, acoustic chords would be suffocated by a brass blanket. Instead they miraculously lift the entire piece, ascending in volume during the bridges and surreptitiously accompanying Beam as he sings with a noticeable clarity. The song is pure jollity and you can almost picture Beam, well, beaming. “Burn that Broken Bed” has its horns muted, offering a soft viscosity that appends Beam’s breathy efforts. Their exchanges here are also somewhat playful, if only because they sound as one.
But all these plaudits on Beam’s part aren’t to disparage Calexico’s work, nor to say that their appearance should be considered peripheral. You shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which they kept some of their eccentricities in check and, yes, because of that effort the combination does at times feel as though it should have arisen sooner. It would have been significantly different if either side merely sauntered through the recording sessions piggybacking on or performing past each other, but neither of these situations is the case. There still exists Beam’s Southern mystique on songs like “Dead Man’s Will” and “Prison Route 41,” but Calexico manage to show their multifarious influences on something like “Red Dust.”
Of course all this is not to say is that either artist can find its way around any musical universe—I mean, could you fathom a Chopped and Screwed version of “Naked as We Came?”—but their combination does yield some positive possibilities. Calexico managed to utilize only specific parts of their veritable grab bag of influences while Beam never once stayed in his own comfortable space and simply let the record fibrillate. In The Reins is intelligent but natural, different but not queer. It’s a happily contingent combination whose sum is entirely appeasing.
Reviewed by: Ayo Jegede
Reviewed on: 2005-10-26