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Iron & Wine / Calexico - In the Reins

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Artist: Iron & Wine / Calexico

Album: In the Reins

Label: Overcoat

Review date: Oct. 16, 2005

God is in the details here. Iron & Wine and Calexico are not dissimilar enough, as purveyors of sad and elegant country ramblings, to make a provocative combination by juxtaposition alone. True enough, Sam Beam's solitary melancholy and Calexico's mariachi-sized melancholy offer some counterpoint, but from a compositional standpoint they're only different means to a similar end. So it's in the subtleties, the flowers on the wallpaper, that the collaboration bears fruit.

In most immediate ways In the Reins is Beam's show, with Calexico as a capable – or rather extremely appropriate – backing band. It had to be that way, perhaps, to compensate for his being so outnumbered, but also because he's a better songwriter than Joey Burns or John Convertino (just as he's a better songwriter than most living songwriters). Beam's songs are fragile, though, and the degree to which Calexico's additions are muted is telling. The best numbers sound like Iron & Wine, fleshed out tastefully but inessentially: the rather lovely "16, Maybe Less" has Calexico's soft drums and lap steel, but more prominent is that guitar twang from The Creek Drank the Cradle and Beam's arrestingly gentle voice. "Dead Man's Will," which is an old Iron & Wine song anyway, hardly sounds collaborative at all, give or take some faint choral doubling. The fingerprints could be anyone's; there is something beyond Beam's trademark sparseness, but it's something vague.

Fortunately, the coexistence is more harmonious and democratic elsewhere. "Burn That Broken Bed" sashays toward a steamy trumpet breakdown and the horn-tipped "History of Lovers" exudes more joy and liveliness than Beam ever has on his own; "Red Dust," another old Iron & Wine track, dispenses with the original's Appalachian creepiness and embraces a pleasingly seedy honky-tonk groove instead. In these cases it doesn't matter as much that the structure of the song itself is clearly Beam's, because Calexico get their signature in persuasively enough to make the disc worth their time. The only outright awkwardness in the coupling comes after the first verse of the otherwise gorgeous "He Lays in the Reins," when somebody who is not Sam Beam intones a few lines in operatically throaty Spanish – but even that sounds good in its own weird way, and the coast is clear from then on.

After all the greatest shortcoming of In the Reins is academic; as proper as it is to demand that a collaboration offer something tangibly different from the sum of its parts, it feels gratuitous when the parts are as irreproachable as these. If it was a foregone conclusion that the long-awaited Iron & Wine/Calexico team-up wouldn't result in anything revelatory (or incendiary, as it were), it was almost as inevitable that it would be rewarding all the same; safe, not sorry, sad and elegant as ever.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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