Calexico In the Reins (with Iron & Wine)

[Overcoat; 2005]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: indie rock, roots rock, alt-country, mariachi, southern-flavored indie rock
Others: Giant Sand, Kinky, Howe Gelb, Neko Case, Wilco

The idea of a collaboration between Sam Beam and the members of Calexico has been around for quite some time now; if their schedules had matched up right, Calexico might have even served as the backup band on Beam's 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle. But no, that album remained a collection of Beam's home recordings. Instead, apparently, Beam decided to send a set of unreleased demos to Calexico with the idea that the band might rework them, and the project grew from there to become a true collaborative effort, with the two folk powers working together in tandem. So finally, after three years, we have a seven song EP to show for all the talk. The release will be followed by a joint Iron & Wine/Calexico tour, and who knows what might follow from there?

Technically, In the Reins is all previously unreleased material, so it ought to be all new to fans of both bands. But this day in age where no musical recording can escape the file-sharing masses, almost all the products of Beam's early recordings are available to unscrupulous traders. No, this material is hardly new; in fact, almost all the tracks on In the Reins have made their rounds online, and those that haven't are available as solo live recordings (which are basically what the demos are anyway) or b-sides. So a large portion of this album's audience will have heard all of this material before. As a result, it's almost impossible to expect people to approach this EP without the original songs as a reference point, and In the Reins begins to look more like a remix album than a proper release.

Of course, the comparison doesn't just work between each song. The original material that became In the Reins was recorded alongside The Creek Drank the Cradle and thereby sounds almost identical to the tracks on Beam's debut. We all know that Our Endless Numbered Days marked a progression in Beam's style from decidedly lo-fi to crisp and clean studio recordings; and since the point of the collaboration was to add more lush instrumentation to Beam's tracks, In the Reins can act as a sort of commentary on that progression. For fans of Iron & Wine, this is an oft-debated question: is his early stuff better, with its more rustic and thereby more genuine feel; or is his latter stuff an improvement, with its spotless production? And with a direct comparison between songs now available, we might be able to strike an authoritative conclusion.

But even with In the Reins, it's still an incredibly hard question to answer. For one, Iron & Wine backed by Calexico sounds markedly different from recent solo Iron & Wine; the later uses glossed-up acoustic guitars, banjos, and percussion, while the former's music has more subtle but varied touches -- more pedal steels, extra guitar parts, horns, backup vocals -- that for the most part maintain the rustic country quality of Beam's earlier work. In the Reins sounds more like true folk music than Beam's recent work. But don't be mistaken; this record still removes the rough feeling of the demo versions, striking something of a middle ground between early and late Iron & Wine.

And secondly, while most Iron & Wine songs share a similar structure and compositional feel, In the Reins largely separates itself from that mold. The best parts of Iron & Wine songs are almost always the bridges between chorus and verse or the outros, the spaces void of singing where Beam adds subtle riffs on top of the normal progression; maybe a banjo coming in, playing harmonies, or a second acoustic guitar overdubbed with a slide guitar part. It's these sections of the songs that are the most endearing, more-so than his melodic choruses or lyrical verses. They are the sharpest hooks, and, unfortunately, Calexico pretty much cuts out the effect of these bridges on In the Reins, replacing them with dull saxophones, harmonicas, trumpets, and ill-defined electric guitar parts. The instrumentation kills "Burn that Broken Bed" (previously named "Overhead"), which seemed to exist solely for its intense acoustic guitars-and-banjo outro. And while the pedal steel during the bridges of "Sixteen, Maybe Less" is still there, it's been changed; it exists mostly as background noise in In the Reins, while in the demo it's clearly-defined and carries the entire section. In this way, much of the charm of the early demos is stripped clean out.

But it's a trade-off; the verses and choruses in In the Reins are much more rich and nuanced than in the demos, helping to offset the newly mediocre midsections. The new "He Lays in the Reins" sports much richer (but quieter) backing music, allowing Beam's excellent vocals to float to the top of the mix. "Dead Man's Will" (which lacked any of the aforementioned bridges) is also vastly improved, with better vocals, a more cleanly played guitar part, and rich production. And "Red Dust" is one hell of an exception to the rule; what used to be a mediocre track is turned into a sort of folk jam, with organs and battling electric guitars, in between two short vocal sections. So while the high points are less high throughout In the Reins, the rest of it sounds much better.

What it really boils down to is that Beam's demos and the tracks on In the Reins are much different beasts. The demo tracks are all about setting up interludes and breaks, while the actual brunt of the songs seem like afterthoughts. But Calexico's backing is much more holistic, focusing on fleshing out Beam's compositions as much as possible, heightening the quality the verses and choruses. Yes, the new versions have forsaken the hooks that made the originals endearing. But the songs on In the Reins are much more well-rounded, which should make them hold up even better in the long run. And if Beam can learn to combine the best elements of both recording styles, we should be seeing some of his strongest work in the near future.

1. He Lays in the Reins
2. Prison on Route 41
3. History of Lovers
4. Red Dust
5. 16, Maybe Less
6. Burn That Broken Bed
7. Dead Man's Will