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South by Southwest 

Iron and Wine and Calexico meet each other halfway — and the results are gorgeous

Any musician can tell you that a successful collaboration requires a genuine respect for the other partners' talents and a willingness to be flexible — be it by varying one's usual approach to creating music, or by setting aside one's ego and merely providing support. To birth a successful creation, collaborators must stretch out to make a connection and find a common ground so that the creative sparks can fly.

Iron and Wine — the nom de plume of bearded songwriter Sam Beam — and the Tuscon, Arizona, group Calexico made such a connection on their recent joint venture, a mini-LP titled In the Reins. Easily one of the best collaborations of the year, the record is a near-perfect synthesis of the groups' disparate sounds — Iron and Wine's stark Southern melodies and Calexico's ornate, desert-shape descants.

Yet within these differences, the bands apparently found that there is an underlying sadness in each of their music — a sadness they can both mold into variety of interesting forms, be it a prison blues ballad, a waltz or a pop number.

Consider the song "A History of Lovers": The original is a lonely, Beam-penned dirge nearing five minutes in length. Its pace seems to hamper its melody, a misplaced slide-guitar solo awkwardly cuts the song in two, and Beam labors to deliver words about the murder of a suitor and a lover on the run.

The shorter, collaborated version, however, features a faster tempo that livens up the song and pushes it into the pop realm. (You can actually dance to this version, not mope.) The sadness remains, lyrically, but Beam has tightened up his singing, thus giving the song's narrator the hopefulness of resolution; it sounds like he can live with the misfortunes of his past. Additionally, Calexico has added some sharp extra touches: Backing vocals help take away the singer's loneliness, a bustling piano gives a saloon-like feel, and a bright horn section cheers the song up. While the rest of the songs on Reins sound dramatically different, almost all are of equally high caliber.

But what drew the two groups together in the first place? Surprisingly, Beam originally wanted Calexico to be his backing band on Iron and Wine's bedroom-recorded 2002 debut, the intimate The Creek Drank the Cradle. (The album was actually released in the form of four-track demos.)

"They're amazing musicians, [they're] a lot of fun to play with...and their Western wear!" Beam says about why he considered working with the group. But more seriously, he adds: "Howard Greynolds [who ultimately ended up putting out Reins on his label, Overcoat Recordings] suggested them to me. I was aware of their stuff; it's really good. They do a lot of session work, too. It was one of the ideas I threw around."

At the time Beam was working on Cradle, Calexico was working on their biggest record, Feast of Wire, for Touch and Go Records subsidiary Quarterstick. Although they couldn't find the time to record together, Beam and Calexico singer/guitarist Joey Burns did keep the idea alive. It was clearly something that they both wanted to do.

"What appealed to us," Burns writes in an e-mail, "was someone that was focused more on voice, harmonies, textures and instrumentation that dealt with different backgrounds. That's what I love about his music, and have been really enjoying the times spent together playing both live and in studio."

Yet the bands didn't just set up camp in the studio and start writing.

"Sam had a batch of songs left from earlier times that were out there on the Web as demos," Burns explains. "It seemed a perfect idea to record these with both bands and open the possibilities of where they could go."

Iron and Wine and Calexico are obviously satisfied with how Reins turned out, seeing as how they've set up a very unique tour based around the album.

"It's in the spirit of the record — a collaborative, fun thing to do," Beam says. "Plus, routine gets old; we wanted to throw a wrench into it. Basically, they do a set and then I do a set, and then we do a set together, play covers and random stuff. We will also have regional guests and other surprises."

Such as?

"I don't know, and I probably wouldn't tell you if I did," he chuckles.

Beam's amiable laugh contrasts with the often-blue demeanor of his songs, whose gorgeous, finger-picked guitars and downcast melodies drew instant comparisons to Nick Drake, England's minstrel of melancholy. But unlike Drake, Beam's lyrical imagery and use of banjo and slide guitar give his music a decidedly Southern feel. On records such as 2004's Our Endless Numbered Days, he embraced studio recording with all its tricks and toys, and opened his sound up a little more without sacrificing immediacy or his Southern roots. In the process he gained plenty of new fans without losing his old ones. (His cover of the Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" on the Garden State soundtrack particularly helped him to reach a wider audience.)

Calexico has also been tagged regionally; their music has a Southwestern sound. But when Burns mentions Calexico's influences — which range from writer Carlos Fuentes to gypsy music to spaghetti-Western score-composer Ennio Morricone — he speaks of a "blue vein" and "connections through melancholy, [or] saudade" that he and his bandmates frequently find in different artists from all over the world.

In fact, it only takes a casual listen to any of Calexico's records to reveal that the band is committed to experimentation and open to outside influences. It's not uncommon for Calexico to employ dub, mariachi, indie rock and even down-home country in their songs. Yet they always manage to inject a desert vibe into those different sources — which, coupled with Iron and Wine's Southernness, also helps make Reins so interesting.

"I don't really think of the music as being from one region or another," Burns says. "There are so many influences in both of our music that extend well beyond the geographic, but this question does come up time and time again. I suppose that [Beam's] music and writing are keyed to an openness in the same way that ours is; and in that openness, dynamics, instrumentation and subtleties all make new connections.

"Once musicians start playing in a room, there are usually more similarities discovered from such different backgrounds than not."

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More by Guy Gray

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