Few EPs made an impact like the collaboration of Calexico and Iron & Wine’s In the Reins from 2005. Although it took all this time for their respective schedules to align, they are now delivering their first full-length album, Years to Burn. The collective names are a bit of a mouthful but it’s essentially a collaboration of three people: Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), and Joey Burns and John Convertino (Calexico) with support from trusted, familiar musicians. While In the Reins naturally involved trepidation of the part of both parties who had never worked together, Years to Burn has both confident, mature and well-grounded as they entered the Nashville studio with noted producer Matt Ross-Spang at the helm.
Using Cowboy Jack Clement’s Sound Emporium, it features contributions from veteran Calexico trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela and Paul Niehaus on pedal steel along with frequent Beam cohorts Rob Burger (Tin Hat Trio) and keyboards and Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing, Fionna Apple) on bass. Burns, of course, plays the guitars and Convertino is the drummer. All three principals share songwriting duties with Beam contributing the most while he and Burns share vocals on the non-instrumental only tracks. Beam shared demos ahead of time but there was a spirt of collaboration in the studio where they laid down these 10 tracks in five days. The session was recorded live as much as possible, with much on-the-spot- improvisation and with minimal overdubs.
While the 2005 recording introduced each to the other, it was the subsequent touring that formed their bond. It’s worth sharing this story from that tour, as related by Burns. “We were driving from Toronto to Detroit to Chicago in a snowstorm. It was one of the scariest drives we’ve ever done. We were in our 15-passenger van with a trailer. John did almost all the driving, and everyone in the van was completely silent. Everywhere we were seeing cars and trucks off the road. And we were listening to that Johnny Cash American Recordings album. It was intense. When made it safe and arrived in Chicago, the relief we felt was an incredible experience. I’ll never forget that glimpse into the importance of life and the risks that you take.”
They begin with Beam’s “What Heaven’s Left,” which initially draws on classic country with Niehaus’ pedal steel doing the obligatory weeping before Valenzuela’s trumpet takes it into R&B territory. Beam immediately reveals his style of poetic, visual lyrics with lines like these – “You take my doubt and let me believe/You find the lightning in the tops of my trees.” On Burns’ “Midnight Sun” the two vocalists share haunted verses backed by atmospheric steel until Burns enters with his distorted, fading electric guitar. “Father Mountain,” the single and clear standout track, is a signature cinematic tune from Bema with infectious, memorable hooks and high harmonies from Burns over Burger’s sparkling keys.
Those first three pieces are relatively straightforward compared to what follows. First comes the instrumental “Outside El Paso,” a sonic exploration that allows Valenzuela to improvise, jazz-like, on his trumpet. Beam calls it a “palette cleanser.” The gentle, acoustic “Follow the Water” returns to Beam’s comfort zone before they engage in a three-piece eight-minute “The Bitter Suite.” “Tennessee Train,” the third part is an acoustic sketch from Beam that frames the middle two-chord “Evil Eye’ and its improvisatory jamming., and the opening “Pajaro,” based on lyric fragments for “Tennessee Train” translated into Spanish and sung by Valenzuela over acoustic guitars.
The disc closes with a pair of tunes written by Beam but with Burns on the lead vocal. The title track is a quiet stunner, a lullaby imbued with sensitive playing from Niehaus, Valenzuela and Burger while Beam and Burns strum. The closer, “in Your Own Time,” was written almost two decades ago as one of Beam’s first demos and one of the first of his that Calexico heard. It’s a shuffle with the two vocalists sharing verses as Burger’s keys cushion the sound.
Like much of what we’ve come to expect from Calexico there are plenty of textures and colorful layers in these pieces, with the bonus of Beam’s image-rich lyrics and gentle affecting vocals. It’s special.