This one seems pretty easy to me. Though I probably wouldn’t have put the two together unless someone had suggested it, Iron & Wine and Calexico make perfect collaborators. As both artists are known for their unique take on Americana, their collaboration could only result in a new interpretation, one that marries the swampy clime of Florida to the Southwestern desert. Neither of these artists have put out anything bad, nor anything even mediocre. So, quite frankly, this was a guaranteed winner from the get go.
The one thing about In the Reins that comes off as particularly noteworthy is how much of a true collaboration this project is. Though all of the songs are penned by Sam Beam, Calexico’s backing arrangements are what lend them their unique flavor. If it weren’t for Beam’s gentle folksy croon, it would hardly be recognizable as an Iron & Wine record. Yet, it’s because of that croon that it stands out apart from Calexico’s own albums. And though some have said that this record sounds like neither of the artists billed, that’s not exactly true. It doesn’t necessarily sound like one more than the other. It does, however, sound like both, and while we’re at it, both artists pushed to their creative peaks.
Leadoff track “He Lays in the Reins” immediately smacks of Calexico’s Southwestern folk-rock, complete with lap steel and South of the Border acoustic guitar riffs. However, when Beam chimes in, with his lovely verses such as “One more drink tonight/let your gray stallion rest/where he lays in the reins,” it becomes something different altogether. However, it is the passionate flamenco singer that charges in during the bridge that really steals the show. It’s a little strange at first, but makes perfect sense in the grand scheme of the song.
“Prison on Route 41” sounds more like a typical Iron & Wine song, as it favors a more gentle arrangement, one more soothing than Calexico’s moody pieces. “A History of Lovers,” meanwhile, is the “hit.” Taking both artists’ sounds to new celebratory heights, this is where it all comes together so perfectly. Horns blare and barroom piano stumbles drunkenly while Beam sings of Louise and her murderous love affairs: “I hope that she’s happy/I’m blamed for the death of a man who would take her from me.”
“Red Dust” is the first true diversion from familiar styles, opting for a swampy blues jam that’s funky and cool, but doesn’t necessarily go anywhere. Not that that’s really a bad thing. It is, however, offset by the graceful ballad “Sixteen, Maybe Less,” which finds Beam, Burns and Convertino in perfect harmony, with some of the most beautiful music either artist has released, possibly ever. Beam hardly rises above a whisper, but Calexico’s weeping lap steel, reverb and delay-treated guitars and brushed drums offer the perfect sand-painted atmosphere to match the lyrical tale of lovelorn memories.
“Burn That Broken Bed” is a jazzier arrangement, with muted trumpet and a cool-sounding groove throughout. And “Dead Man’s Will” ends, appropriately, as the most uniquely Iron & Wine-like tune of the bunch, sticking primarily to a simple acoustic backing and hand percussion, with slight touches of ambient sound for texture. In the Reins is a wonderful release from two heavyweights in indie folk, one that only suffers from being a little short. They could have doubled the number of songs, and it still wouldn’t be enough.
Iron & Wine – Woman King
Calexico – Hot Rail
Neko Case – Blacklisted
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.