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Out of the gates 

Iron and Wine and Calexico collaboration spurs a tour

Is art best made quickly and spontaneously, or constructed deliberately over a long period of time? Last year, two beloved indie-rock acts, Iron and Wine and Calexico, opted for the former, knocking out their collaborative EP, In the Reins, in a mere two weeks. Expediency fueled the recording sessions. The idea was to make some music, release it, and hit the road for a U.S. and European tour. The eight songs that resulted sound more immediate and energetic than anything else either band has released on its own.

"It's interesting when people come together for a collaboration. It gives them a chance to try something they wouldn't normally do in their own projects," says Calexico's Joey Burns about In the Reins. "It was nice to capture something on the first take. On this project, there wasn't much of an intention other than to record a song and see what happens. ... Sometimes when there's a lot of expectations, pre-planning, and going over and over on certain songs and takes, it wears down the spontaneity, vibe and energy."

The pairing isn't entirely surprising. Calexico, a seven-man ensemble of musicians led by Burns and John Convertino, is known for ornately textured Americana, gathering inspiration from rock, jazz, country, Tex-Mex and film soundtracks. Iron and Wine, the nom de plume for Miami multi-instrumentalist Sam Beam, sticks almost exclusively to folk and country. Both acts tap into the same wellspring of nostalgia for a distant past that may not have existed and is largely informed by artifacts -- old recordings, photographs, books and memories.

Howard Greynolds, former publicist for Touch & Go Records and current owner of Overcoat Recordings, brought the two artists together. A year ago in December 2004, Beam went to Tucson to record with Calexico (Burns, Convertino, Paul Niehaus, Ryan Roscoe, Jacob Valenzuela, Martin Wenk and Volker Zander). Instead of writing new songs, they decided to work on several of Beam's old demos (some of which, incidentally, already had been bootlegged on the Internet). "It was easier to take his songs that hadn't really been recorded in the studio" instead of writing new ones, says Burns. Plus, both acts were working on new albums -- Calexico's Garden Ruin is due to hit stores in April -- and neither wanted to sacrifice material for the one-off project.

"We just played the songs. If it felt good, we recorded it, we were all happy with it, and we moved on," says Burns. Beam took the vocal lead on the songs while Burns, Calexico's primary singer, sang harmony. Others outside of the Calexico camp joined in, including Salvador Duran, who added a Spanish vocal to "He Lays in the Reins."

In the Reins refers to that track, which depicts a weary traveler at rest, "laying in the reins." On it, Beam's lyricism is as vivid as ever: "One more tired thing, a gray moon on the rise/When your want from the day/Makes you to curse in your sleep at night," he sings. And Calexico lends a sweet steel guitar to "Prison on Route 41." But generally, In the Reins is heavy on rollicking, good-time vibes, with brassy, peppy songs such as "A History of Lovers," tailor-made for alternative radio stations. Even ballads such as "Sixteen, Maybe Less" push forward with purpose.

Certainly, for all its considerable charms, In the Reins is short on details. Thematically, the songs feel disconnected from each other -- a quality that runs counter to Iron and Wine's best work -- but are more punchy and poppy than most of Calexico's catalog. Then again, maybe it's just the shock of hearing two bands creating an uncharacteristically accessible record.

"I feel pretty good about it," says Burns. "There were certain things in the mixing that, stylistically, I would have tried something else. But with any recording, you are going to live with certain aspects of what you did."

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