Time Forgot: Calexico and Iron & Wine, "In The Reins"
Time Forgot is a new feature series looking at albums, songs, EPs, performances, etc. that haven't gotten their due in a while.
I've probably listened to the joint EP, In The Reins, from Iron and Wine and Calexico around 7,000 times. Each time I do, it feels as familiar and cozy as a broken-in winter jacket. It's just seven songs, so it's an easy listen, but it's one of those rare collections that has never grown old.
It's insane to think about, but In The Reins was released in 2005. At the time, I lived Tucson, worked as a reporter at the local newspaper, and was involved in the local music scene.
Despite that, I wasn't too familiar with Calexico— probably the most popular band to ever come out of Tucson— although I had certainly heard of the Americana act. I was a huge fan of Iron and Wine though, and Sam Beam had already released the excellent Woman King EP earlier in 2005. I remember hearing Calexico and Iron and Wine were recording together, but when two music acts collaborate on a song, let alone an EP, it doesn't always turn out the way you imagine.
When In The Reins dropped, I remember being shocked at how great it was. Not that it wouldn't make sense that the Iron and Wine/Calexico pairing would work out, but at just how natural it all sounds. It's an incredibly warm album, and pairs some of the best elements of both acts.
For starters, you have Sam Beam's gentle, soothing voice over the majority of the tracks. What's interesting is that when Calexico frontman Joey Burns does sing lead, as on "Red Dust," he sounds nearly indistinguishable from Beam. It's a subtle switch, and if you're not paying attention you might not even notice.
The music itself is slow-moving and largely acoustic folk. And since it's Calexico, it has that dusty, Southwestern vibe going on, with plenty of pedal steel, horns, and John Convertino's sublime drumming as the backbone of each song. (Incidentally, I've always thought Calexico shine especially bright on instrumentals and when backing up other artists. Not to take anything away from Burns as a singer, because Calexico has some great albums on its own, but the band's work here and on the I'm Not There soundtrack, in particular, is fantastic.)
From the local perspective, there were lots of elements on In The Reins to appreciate. The album was recorded at Wavelab Studios in Tucson, this small, downtown recording studio in a building filled with gnarly band practice spaces. And when I say "practice spaces," the majority of them were basically like dumpy one-room storage units with no bathrooms or windows. Wavelab was an oasis in this building, and there was some major local talent working there. Still is, I imagine. Everyone from Animal Collective to Neko Case has cut albums at Wavelab, and it's gained a respected national reputation.
When I interned at Club Congress in Tucson for a while (a music venue within a historic downtown hotel), there was a traditional Latin folk singer named Salvador Duran who would come and sing in the lobby one evening a week. His deep, passionate voice shows up on the first track, "He Lays In The Reins," singing in Spanish. If memory serves, I believe Duran also was responsible for the album's gorgeous cover art as well.
Other standouts include the gorgeous "Prison On Route 41," the wistful "16, Maybe Less," and the melodic closer "Dead Mans Will." Honestly, the whole thing is solid front-to-back and wraps up in less than a half-hour. It's perfect for a slow Sunday afternoon, but I've really listened to this thing throughout every season of my life so far and it's always delivered.
When I found a copy at a local shop here in Portland, I couldn't resist. It sounds great on vinyl, with a lot more of the varied instrumentation and strings audible than the MP3s and streaming plays I've given it over the years. The packaging is pretty bare-bones— just the cover and a plastic sleeve— but for about $12 it's tough to complain.
There was a quick tour behind this EP in the fall of 2005, and I can't speak for any other stop on that itinerary, but the Tucson show had an incredible, time-capsule feel, something like a local version of "The Last Waltz," only no one was retiring. Calexico played a set, then Iron and Wine, and then both bands got together and ran through the EP. Sometimes you just get lucky.
The music on In The Reins hasn't aged all that much in the 12 or so years since it's been released, and its songs are always places I'm eager to visit again and again.