South by Southwest

The American highway is dotted with toll booths and coffee shops, small stops and oases alongside the vast scrolls of patchy asphalt that unite us all, even if the lines of connection aren’t readily apparent. And it’s here, between refueling and stopping to stretch, that we find Calexico drummer John Convertino, making his way from Washington, D.C., to Asbury Park, N.J., after which he’ll continue north, then back through the Midwest, on Calexico’s 15-city tour with Sam Beam’s whispery, weird-Americana project Iron and Wine.

On paper it seems like the most bizarre pairing imaginable, the spooky, understated Iron and Wine with Calexico, the Tucson, Ariz., Morricone-by-way-of-mariachi powerhouse combo. But spin In the Reins, the bands’ collaborative release on Chicago’s Overcoat label, and the picture snaps into place like an Escher drawing — disorienting at first, but possessed of its own skewed and lovely logic.

Actually, this pairing of one of the year’s most popular indie rock acts — that’d be the unprepossessing Beam — and a critics’-favorite band with nowhere near the popular esteem it deserves, was a long time coming. Beam, who infamously released an album’s worth of home-recorded demos as his debut disc on Sub Pop, had initially wanted Calexico to work as the backing group for that project.

“Which was something I’d never heard about, until we started doing press [for In the Reins],” Convertino says, laughing. “But it wasn’t as weird as it might sound. We’ve done a lot of that kind of work over the years — sound track stuff, collaborative sessions with various singers — and we work really hard at finding an appropriate sound for the voices we play under. For a long time, especially when it was just me and Joey, we were an instrumental group anyway. So it’s not a terrific stretch.”

True: Back in 1996, when Calexico was only Convertino and guitarist Joey Burns, the duo’s moody blend of multi-instrumental soundscapes caught the attention of fellow outsiders Vic Chesnutt, Barbara Manning, Victoria Williams and Lisa Germano, among others, all of whom tapped Calexico for session work. Intuitive as well as educated players (Burns studied in UC Irvine’s classical music program before moving to Tucson), Convertino and Burns developed a musical style deeply rooted in the border culture of the American Southwest, drawing from film scores and Mexican folk, indie rock and bombastic Latin jazz.

“And Sam takes that same sort of approach, that visual approach to the music,” Convertino says. “Iron and Wine’s music always sounded very cinematic to me, so when we were able to get together, everything clicked really quickly.”

Overcoat founder Howard Reynolds, Convertino reports, provided the catalyst for the project. After shepherding a collaborative project with Will Oldham and Tortoise, Reynolds approached Calexico and Beam about scheduling studio time.

“And the thing that was weird, was that we both had just enough time to do it. Calexico had just come off the tour for [2003’s] Feast of Wire, and Sam had the songs already written; he sent us a demo recording, and we worked off of that. So when we finally went into [Tucson’s] Wavelab Studios to record, it didn’t take long at all. Joey and Sam and I put the basic tracks down, and the whole thing was done, with overdubs and everything, in four days.”

The finished In the Reins is a warm and spontaneous disc, a collaborative project in the truest sense, even though the songs are all Beam’s. The minor-key opening, “He Lays In the Reins,” treads familiar Iron and Wine territory in its blending of bucolic unease and weary sympathy (“One more kiss tonight/From some tall stable girl/She’s like grace from the earth/When you’re all tuckered out and tame”). But a third-verse Spanish guest vocal from Tuscon Flamenco performer Salvador Duran adds a layer of complexity absent from any previous Beam release, as does the persistent pedal steel and banjo interplay on the haunting “Prison on Route 41.”

The album’s most purely collaborative track, the giddy “A History of Lovers,” is a soulful roll-call of busted hearts and bad moves, driven by a low-end acoustic riff and Convertino’s snapping snare. “Cuddle some men, they’ll remember you bitterly/Fuck ’em, they’ll come back for more,” Beam sings, sounding less resigned than happily smartassed. It’s a charming moment, one that’s hard to imagine in the context of a separate release from either band, but plays to the strengths of each — Calexico’s watertight musicianship and Beam’s ear for the language of unsentimental romance.

In support of In the Reins, Calexico and Beam have embarked on a series of regional tours with a rotating roster of supporting acts and special guests, including singer-songwriter Edith Frost and Beam’s sister (and sometime collaborator) Sarah. Iron and Wine’s current popularity among the college-radio and indie-rock set seems to provide the crowd’s base, suspects Convertino, whose shows with Calexico are famously rowdy affairs.

“The audiences have been amazing — what astonishes me is how quiet they are, how respectful. And I think that’s partially because Sam’s fans are used to listening closely to the music. All the shows we’ve done so far have been really, really incredible evenings.”

It’s been a busy year for both acts — Iron and Wine released the Woman King EP in February, and Calexico’s next studio album is slated for spring 2006 — but In the Reins stands on its merits as a joint project, and the players remain as high on the music as the fans seem to be.

“Most of the shows are sold out,” Convertino says. “The tour is probably introducing us to Iron and Wine fans, rather than the other way around. But we’ve got a tour scheduled for Europe soon, and we’ve always had a wider fan base in Europe. I’m not sure whether Sam’s toured overseas yet.” He laughs again. “Maybe we can flip the tables on him.”


Calexico with Iron and Wine appear Saturday, Dec. 12, at the Majestic Theatre, 4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700.

Eric Waggoner is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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