Calexico and Iron & Wine: A More Perfect Union

Members of Calexico and Iron and Wine: Joey Burns, Sam Beam, and John Convertino have united for a new release.
Members of Calexico and Iron and Wine: Joey Burns, Sam Beam, and John Convertino have united for a new release. Piper Ferguson
In 2005, members of Iron & Wine and Calexico united to create the EP In the Reins.

The parties involved reconvened 14 years later in a Nashville studio to record a full-length release titled Years to Burn. If there are lingering questions about how that decade-plus bridge between sessions would affect a reunion, they’re quickly answered with a listen: The wait was worth it.

Independently, the two acts have been making critically acclaimed indie rock for many years. Both have incorporated rootsy Americana sounds into their styles. Where Iron & Wine go heavier on the heartbreak, Calexico’s songs move like weeping willows in a breeze — whipping and flowy, peppered with a jazzy sensibility and lots of Latin music sounds, from mariachi to cumbia.

Together, the blend is confident and dynamic; it feels meant to be — like it’s an offering rooted in destiny. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, Years to Burn allows you to feel grounded while lulling you into a heady sonic reverie that you’re in no rush to leave.

Joey Burns, Calexico’s vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, says that it was the anniversary of In the Reins that helped inspire this second record.

“We never really had a plan until then,” he says. “Initially, we thought we might record a song or two, and that it would also be a good excuse to just hang out with friends, but then it grew into more.”

Sam Beam — the prime entity that’s Iron & Wine — sent Burns and his Calexico co-founder, John Convertino, demos before they all met in Nashville to record. Much of what resulted came from an innate bond between all of the players involved, as well as having the freedom to improvise.

“This time around,” Burns says, “instead of it being all of the members of Calexico and just Sam, it was three of the Iron & Wine musicians and three of Calexico’s musicians, so it was very balanced. We were there less than a week, and we tapped into something very special. It was fun, and the material that Sam brought was a great starting point. From there, we just kept finding inspiration and digging into those great moments.”

Years to Burn is musically and emotionally compelling from the jump. Beam’s “What Heaven’s Left” is such a perfectly crooned country heartbreaker. It’s as if someone asked him to pen something specifically for a vault of official tears-in-your-beer tunes.

Beam’s magic is never lost on Burns. “Sam is insanely talented. He makes us look good. His songs feel and sound so good and so natural. These are all mainly live performances, with just a few overdubs here and there — they just felt like fully realized tracks. We didn’t have the time to pre-plan or over-conceptualize. It feels a lot like what it was — friends meeting up and making music.”

Don’t let Burns’ humility fool you — he (and Convertino) can destroy hearts at Beam’s level, no problem. “Midnight Sun” is a track Burns penned for this latest offering, and its tender plucking, heartfelt and soft vocals, and captivating sparseness make it feel like a lost track from Nick Drake’s Pink Moon.

The instrumental “Outside El Paso” is just as haunting sans vocals. Written collectively, it is subtly chaotic and simultaneously comforting, like a soft breeze backing up a blast of thunder.

The sense of completeness Years to Burn provides is undoubtedly a testament to the shared admiration between bands. It’s a union that started on a solid foundation. “When we recorded In the Reins,” Burns tells us, “we were meeting for the first time in the studio, and that project came out great. I love all of the parts that everyone contributed.”

Burns cites “not overthinking things” as one of the factors of a successful second go-around. “We trusted in ourselves and each other and the process. We just went in there and played.”

And though their complex, swirling musical arrangements and soulful vocals can be reminiscent of greats from Tom Waits to The Rolling Stones, the players didn’t develop these tracks with any particular influences in mind.

“The artists you’ve mentioned,” Burns says, “like Waits, or the Stones, or Nick Drake, they’re all part of our musical DNA, but there were no intentions set going in to bring those influences into the project.”

“For me,” he continues, “it was more about sitting in an empty house in Nashville loaded by all of these old instruments and thinking about coming up with things that would balance the demos I received from Sam just days before.”

Another element of Years to Burn’s consummate nature is the colorful cover art. In this case, as well as with In the Reins, it was created by Beam, who got inspiration from the children’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and its noted collage style.

It features several disembodied heads in a laying position, gazing upward. If they’re reminiscent of the band members, that was the intent, Burns says.

“Sam asked John and me to send some pictures of our profiles, and then he drew some heads and cut them out.” Beam’s wife gave some input on the layered arrangement, and it became a done deal. “I love it,” Burns says, “because to me it feels like fallen leaves from a tree, or like autumn. It’s poetic, and kind of encapsulates this theme or idea of time, especially since this collaboration has taken a 14-year hiatus.”

The combined crew are maximizing their time together — they just returned from a tour in Europe and are getting ready to hit the road here in the States.

Fans can expect to hear plenty of these new songs and more.

“A fair amount of the show is this repertoire we’ve built up,” Burns says. “Also, Sam has chosen some Calexico songs for us to do, and I’ve selected some Iron & Wine songs. There will be at least one cover song and possibly two. Additionally, there are some more intimate two-piece acoustic numbers in the middle of the set. It has a nice flow.”

Burns says some of the arrangements take exciting turns in concert.

“I think what you’ll find is that it’s interesting to see some of these songs that we’ve recorded and sort of the transformation that occurs when you leave the studio, and you go to the live stage,” he says. “I can’t wait for everyone to hear the metamorphosis.”

Calexico and Iron & Wine are scheduled to perform on Friday, August 16, at Orpheum Theatre. Tickets are $36.50 to $42 via TicketForce.
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Amy Young is an arts and culture writer who also spends time curating arts-related exhibits and events, and playing drums in local bands French Girls and Sturdy Ladies.
Contact: Amy Young