by carl wilson

A Passel of Print:
Bubbles, CalexIron&WineCo;, Final Fantasy

calex_iron.jpg
Calexico with Sam "Iron & Wine" Beam (second from left)
.... or Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Randy Meisner, Bernie Leadon and Joe Walsh?

Explaining my minimal blogging this week is the maximal (manimal?) quantity of stuff I've got in newspapers this weekend. Today, it's my biweekly bite-sized-ideas column, Thought Bubbles, in the Globe's Focus section. No music content, but it does have an infinite number of typing monkeys (via Toronto poet and blogger Darren Wershler-Henry's worthy new tome The Iron Whim: A Fragmentary History of Typewriting). You can read it here.

Yesterday it was a piece in the Globe's Friday arts tabloid "7" about the recent bonding between the post-twang ensemble Calexico and the indie-folkist Iron and Wine, which you can read here. I like the article, but I assume other critics also often find themselves secondguessing whether they've been too soft or too hard on a given subject? In this case, I may have been too kind to their collaboration In the Reins - because for all the variety and complementarity going on, there are moments where the damn thing veers deep into Eagles territory. Without the bombast, that is. Am I wrong to be more inclined to be wary of how easy the thing goes down than to reassess my bias against the Eagles? I prefer Calexico with more eccentric vocalists such as Lisa Germano (as OP8) or Richard Buckner (on the superb Devotion & Doubt), who really tug at and destabilize their cinematic textures.

Finally there's tomorrow's piece in the Sunday Times - which, I can now reveal to you, is about Toronto's Owen Pallett, aka Final Fantasy. I'm excited - partly for my sake (it's certainly the highest-profile venue I've ever had) but also because I hope it brings Owen more of the notice he deserves. Linkage coming soon.

The tune whisperer

By CARL WILSON
The Globe and Mail Review
Friday, December 9, 2005

Not long ago, the mixed marriages of songs known as mashups were the hot digital-music novelty, most famously heard on producer Danger Mouse's The Grey Album, which laid rapper Jay-Z's nodding noggin down on the Beatles' durable musical divan.

MTV took a shot at glitzing up the concept with a concert and album that blended Linkin Park with, again, Jay-Z. The Grammys gave it a dodgier try with a jam between Gwen Stefani, Franz Ferdinand and the Black Eyed Peas. And then the whole craze seemed to recede back into the Internet hobbyist zone where it was done first and best.

The current crossover between indie musicians Calexico and Iron and Wine lies somewhere between a mashup and a traditional collaboration. The two do diverge stylistically -- Calexico being a cinematic big band and Iron and Wine mainly a guy with a guitar -- but they also share a sepia-toned, retro sensibility. Their recent joint mini-album, In the Reins, is based on years-old Iron and Wine demos, which many fans will have downloaded long ago. But the players gathered in person in the studio to record the songs anew.

Iron and Wine, whose mama knows him as Florida-based ex-film teacher Sam Beam, is a tune whisperer, literally and figuratively: His susurrations seem to leak out slowly from somewhere behind his generous beard, like gas out of a pinprick-punctured hose; yet in the process, he's able to entice wild songs to sidle up, nuzzle at his neck and submit to be tamed.

He is one of those critic-proof artists whose fans treat his releases like new chapters of scripture. The first, 2002's The Creek Drank the Cradle, was a rural-feeling batch of demo recordings, and while there's been grumbling in the pews about the slicker sound of his further releases, few have gone so far as to up and quit the congregation. His cover version of the Postal Service's Such Great Heights, on the ubiquitous Garden State soundtrack, has even become something of an indie classic.

Yet as a miserable apostate I must confess I've never been able to finish an Iron and Wine album at one sitting. The peaceful, easy vocals and unmodulated melodic range can make it feel as if you were perusing a finely written book of poems in which every line ended with the word "blue" -- refreshing at first, perhaps, but slowly the repetition would make the ink swim and fade under your gaze, until you tumbled into a soporific lake of blue blue blue blueblueblueblue bluuuuluuuue . . . and off to sleep.

Arizona group Calexico, on the other hand, is centred around the equivalent of Motown's Funk Brothers or Jamaica's Sly and Robbie for indie music throughout the 1990s -- a rhythm section with a distinctive sound-print, in this case a spaghetti-western twang from the desert or maybe the moon. Their greatest gift is architectural: They seem able to make their auditory geodesic dome wax and wane to the ideal expanse for any given singer, song or ensemble, allowing room to wander but never to flounder.

Joey Burns and John Convertino began in legendary Tuscon, Ariz., group Giant Sand and moved on to back such artists as Neko Case, Richard Buckner, Lisa Germano, Vic Chesnutt, Bill Janovitz and even Nancy Sinatra. And for the last decade as the core of Calexico, they've grown from a shuffling, aw-shucks outfit to an exuberant variety act that takes in mariachi horns and Afro-Peruvian dance rhythms as much as its basic surf-country-jazz.

But here too there's a flaw that causes the attention to waver: Only once in a blue Mexican moon does Calexico manage to haul out a truly substantial song, one that seems like something more than a discarded neo-noir film scenario. So while their music is seldom actually dull, it too can blur into a mass, and often with an overly glib surface.

So the meeting of the two projects could offer two scoops of boring in watery milk, or it could be the perfect remedy for what each side of the collaboration lacks.

Happily, the latter is nearer the case. On In the Reins, Calexico is perhaps a little overcautious but generally livens up the joint with slithering steel guitars and the occasional ranch-torching blaze of brass, keeping me alert while Beam mounts his storyteller's perch.

And he offers Calexico several songs worth staying up for, such as the inside-out Johnny Cash yarn of Prison on Route 41, sung from the point of view of a man who's abandoned his miscreant family in prison due to the love of a righteous Christian woman, though he provocatively admits, "My saviour is not Christ the lord/ But one named Virginia/ Whom I live my life for."

I'd generally advise avoiding the word "whom" in a song lyric, but Beam earns his biblical tone via the devilish details, which make the narrator seem more selfish than saintly, as his parents, grandparents, cousins and son rot in jail.

If only the two projects had joined forces sooner -- and it turns out Beam intended to. He considered asking Calexico to accompany him on his very first album, but it didn't pan out, so his label went with his set of home recordings.

On the tour arriving in Toronto tonight, they edge nearer to live-mashup status, with each act doing a set before Calexico merges with not only Beam, but also his backing road band, for a supersized take on In the Reins. As long as they outfit the tune whisperer with a loud enough microphone, it should be a rich live show. Perhaps next time they can invite Jay-Z, too.

Iron and Wine and Calexico, tonight at 8 p.m. The Docks, 11 Polson St, $25, 416-461-3625.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, December 10 at 3:53 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

COMMENTS

Interesting site. Good job. Bookmarked.

Posted by John Smith on December 25, 2005 1:22 PM

 

 

i'll echo sean here: in the reins is a major letdown for this fan of both artists. there's little/none of calexico's usual magic, and beam's songs are quite obviously leftovers. that's why i went to the show in mtl last week with trepidation, but was totally blown away. calexico's set was as good as always, but I&W; were a total revelation, transforming all those monochromatic arrangements that put carl to sleep, both with his original band and members of calexico coming on and off stage--not a predictable gradual build, but a five-piece line-up followed by a duo followed by an octet back to solo, etc. and sam beam is the last person in the world i ever expected to lead a 13-piece band, but it totally worked and never stamped all over his songs. there was also a phenomenal cover of "all tomorrow's parties." oh, and joey burns and sam beam sing beautifully together.
so wtf? why this the EP so flat and tepid? i think most writers are more in love with the idea than the execution (although carl is alone in writing convincingly for his reasons for preferring it to each artists' earlier work).
what they really need to do is put out a live album together.
and to quote lebowski, "i've had a really bad day and i really hate the eagles."
though now that i think of it, beam could really pull off "boys of summer," don henley's one redeeming feature.

Posted by barclay on December 12, 2005 12:06 PM

 

 

Yes, congratulations Carl -- this is quite a coup.

And I don't know why anyone's surprised Iron & Wine are sounding like the Eagles; the last album sounded like CSN, so it's really just a natural progression from 1970 to 1973. And hey, when "Take it to the Limit" comes on the radio, I crank it.

Posted by stuberman on December 11, 2005 2:29 PM

 

 

Nice. I'm glad both you and Owen get to have some serious media exposure.

Posted by Greg on December 11, 2005 2:22 PM

 

 

congrats carl! even the grey lady's "Mr"-ing style guide couldn't crush your writing. great piece.

Posted by Dave M. on December 11, 2005 12:01 PM

 

 

I'm of the camp that (maybe notoriously) feels that In The Reins is a load of crap, easy-listening pablum that's not actually *bad* per se, but certainly average, and so Harry Potter-style elicits my fury due to the praise that's lobbed at it. Have you heard the Woman King EP from earlier this year? There, Beam seemed to genuinely be moving towards a darker and less pleasant place, malice in the thornbushes, and it's infuriating to me that the Calexico collab seems to have muffled that impulse instead of encouraging it. At their best, Calexico remind me of Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, and here they just sound like a pleasantly twanging backing band, all the bolder experiences drained out.

Essentially I wanted this album to sound more like The Sadies, I guess, albeit with Iron and Wine's velveteen voice and Royal City-style liturgy. And instead it's just like the excesses of Beam's last IP - pretty to a fault.

Posted by Sean on December 11, 2005 11:46 AM

 

 

Wake up! Here it is!
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/11/arts/music/11wils.html

Posted by Dixon on December 11, 2005 11:03 AM

 

 

I like In The Reins because, dammit, it's just too pretty to really dislike, but have to admit it wasn't as amazing as I thought it could/should be, considering the talents involved. I hope the success of this record and tour encourages I&W; and Calexico to work again in the future, maybe writing more collaboratively rather than just have Calexico provide back up for Sam's old compositions.

I have no opinion on the Eagles, except that I want to punch Don Henley. No good reason.

Posted by frank on December 11, 2005 9:31 AM

 

 

Carl, ive actually been surprised at the somewhat lukewarm reaction to "In the reins". I think its very good. And I for onr place the Eagles somewhere around Yassir Arafat in my great list of hate. So dont feel bad about giving them some good press. In the future i suspect I am more likely to come back to it more than other than other I&W; because its such fun.

Did you know the English love the eagles? We have an Eagles tribute band play a 2000 sit venue (biggest in town) every other month and sell the place up (they are called "the illegal Eagles" BTW.

The Sunday NYT is such a grand slam home run dude. Next thing you'll be winning pulitzers and shit.

Congrats.

Posted by Guy Tanentzapf on December 10, 2005 6:34 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson