Iron and Wine/Calexico

In the Reins EP

(Overcoat Records; 2005)

By Peter Hepburn | 30 December 2007

In the all-American rush for bigger and better, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that many things are better in small doses: spinach, mortgage payments, in-laws. Who really wanted to see Lethal Weapon 4 or the most recent Star Wars films? It just would have been better to cut the fat and trim things down. Keep things to a minimum, and they tend to be better. In many ways, Sam Beam is both proving and testing this rule.

First, it should be acknowledged that Beam is on his game this year. Sure, Iron & Wine hasn’t released a full-length, but he’s still managed to put out the two best releases of his career, the Woman King EP in February and now In the Reins, a collaborative EP with Calexico: 13 tracks all told and among them the best that he has ever written and put to tape. At the same time, these EPs mark the shift of Iron & Wine’s style from a Beam-centered singer-songwriter project to a full-fledged band with things like drums, electric guitars, and now even horns.

While Woman King remains the better of the two EPs, In the Reins is nonetheless quite remarkable in its continued push toward a broader musical palette for Beam and the way that it results in a finished project that’s so clearly a melding of two styles. It’s tempting to initially overlook Calexico’s role here, given the lack of any real vocal contribution from Joey Burns, but in many ways it serves as an important move for them, too, forcing them to focus in and work with a new style of singing. It’s never quite as awesome as it could be, but it still features a few of the better songs either group has recorded.

Calexico come out strong on “He Lays in the Reins,” playing more of a bold Mexican folk style than the spaghetti western music of their earlier records. Unfortunately, Beam still seems somewhat uncertain with his voice, staying quiet when he should be belting out his lines, which necessitates a marked instrumental shift for the verses. This is made all the more obvious when mariachi singer Salvador Duran takes vocal duties in the second verse, belting out his lines over the full bridge. Even with that, Duran’s full tenor has to be laid lower in the mix to match Beam, which is a bit of a shame. The track still comes out well, Beam’s standard mix of gorgeous imagery and wistfulness saving a lackluster delivery.

Lyrically, “Prison on Route 41” finds the clearest middle ground between the southern delta folk of Beam and the Arizona desert of Calexico. Beam tells the story of his incarcerated family and the salvation found in love, and while the music doesn’t move much (aside from a lively banjo), the track suits Beam well. On “History of Lovers” both groups click; Calexico goes full-on with the slide guitar and horn section, and Beam finally cuts loose, letting himself belt out his lyrics of challenged love, betrayal, and violence, the whole thing coming to a wonderfully raucous finale.

“Red Dust” lets Calexico groove on a fun little blues riff, but it’s hard to pay it much mind when “16, Maybe Less” is just around the bend. The latter track is one of those perfect love songs, and it basically renders everything around it superfluous. Beam's back in his comfortable whispering mode, but they mix him in high enough to make up for it. Sarah Beam makes a background vocal appearance in the first verse, a tale of teenage love, but then he takes it alone for probably the most melancholy, beautiful verse of his career. “I met my wife at a party when I drank too much / My son is married and tells me we don’t talk enough / Call it predictable, yesterday my dream was of you,” he sings, before heading back into the chorus. Calexico manage the sort of unobtrusively full-fledged instrumental that so much of Beam’s earlier music would have benefited from. The light drum brushes, subtle bass line and gorgeous slide guitar match the song perfectly. It’s a track that completely justifies this sort of collaboration.

Wisely, Beam and Burns follow it up with “Burn that Broken Bed,” probably the weakest song of the bunch, leaving “Dead Man’s Will” to seal the deal. It’s a natural closer, opening with a group sing-along using only Beam’s light guitar as accompaniment. “Give this stone to my brother / ’cause we found it layin’ in the barnyard / many years ago,” they sing, a subtle marimba entering underneath. As the song builds, Beam works masterfully with the idea of an already dead man's regret: “May my love reach you all / I lost it in myself and buried it too long / Now that I come to fall / Please say it’s not too late / Now that I’m dead and gone.” The effect of the group singing and that creepy marimba is the kind of sadness that Beam has always strived for in his music.

It’ll be interesting to see how much more Calexico and Iron & Wine plan on working together. They’re certainly off to a good start here, and the joint tour they are embarking on will give them a chance to road test and tweak their partnership. They’ve also got a lot of ground left to cover. The decision to keep Burns off the mic is perhaps the most vexing aspect of the collaboration. Over the last few Calexico records, Burns has become more confident as a singer and songwriter, making his absence here all the stranger. His confident country twang would make a beautiful counterpoint to Beam’s quite drawl. I’d also love to hear what Beam could do with some of the “Minas de Cobre” flair that made Calexico so great in the first place.

Still, In the Reins is a clear success. For those of us who’ve always enjoyed Beam but had to worry about falling asleep listening to his music, these last two EPs have shown him as more than a very quiet one-trick pony. Likewise, it’s good to hear from Calexico after an extended absence since 2004’s excellent Convict Pool EP, and the way in which they concentrate so intently on backing up Beam inspires a lot of respect. Hopefully, In the Reins is only the first release in a collaboration that brings together regions of folk music usually separated by, uh, Texas.