Calexico/Iron and Wine: In The Reins (Overcoat)
This is not a split EP, but an actual collaboration between these two cult favorites. The founders of Calexico, John Convertino and Joey Burns, first worked together in Giant Sand in 1990. Calexico's basically a roots-rock band, but takes in a wide range of other influences. Iron and Wine is basically a solo act (lately there's a trend to using band names even if it's just one guy: Mountain Goats, Bright Eyes, etc.), Floridian Sam Beam, who writes lovely melodies set to quiet, acoustic music. Our Endless Numbered Days was one of the five best albums of last year; with this year's Woman King EP, he beefed up his sound slightly.
Anyone who's found Iron and Wine lightweight should finally be convinced of Beam's genius now that he's backed on a program of seven of his songs by Calexico's eccentric country-rock arrangements. What they play doesn't go against the grain of his music at all, instead revealing additional facets. Beam's quiet, breathy singing is not overwhelmed; it's highlighted, jewel-like, in such imaginative settings as the muted trumpet and martial beat of "Burn That Broken Bed," building to ecstatic energy in a lengthy two-trumpet section that slowly fades away. Calexico's love of Latin music shows up on the opening track when mariachi singer Salvador Duran bursts forth operatically mid-song.
The album-closing "Dead Man's Will" is one of Beam's best songs yet, with verses of breathtaking specificity and a heart-wrenching refrain:
"May my love reach you all / I lost it in myself and buried it too long / Now that I've come to fall / Please say it's not too late / Now that I'm dead and gone."
Sung solo, it might be too painful; with the lush vocal harmonies here, it becomes an invocation of ritualistic power. Overcoat Records owner Howard Greynolds thought of combining these two talents long ago. Now that it's come to fruition, it's proven an inspired idea on this disc (available on CD and vinyl). A tour of the two acts is promised, leading to hopes that this collaboration could produce more great music. - Steve Holjte
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem Magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He is a buyer at Sound Fix, a hot new record store in Williamsburg.