This collaboration could’ve happened much earlier, before Sam Beam was the relatively well-known, Postal Service-covering, bearded face of the new folk. Before he had even so much as an album to his name, Beam considered inviting Calexico’s founding members, Joey Burns and John Convertino, to be his backing band on what would become his first record, 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle. As it turned out, Creek was comprised of some of Beam’s innumerable home recordings – without re-recording – and the result was an intimate set of songs that still ranks easily among the best of the songwriter’s copious output.
Eventually, despite Beam’s increased popularity – and to a lesser extent, Calexico’s – the musical partnership found its fruition. The result is the mini-album In the Reins, comprised of seven Beam originals accompanied by Calexico’s flourish. Although not totally in keeping with Beam’s past tendency to create EPs that are stronger than his full-lengths (put Woman King up against Our Endless Numbered Days and the former, smaller release clearly trumps the latter), In the Reins nevertheless provides a solid set of tunes with some interesting musical elements not typically present in Beam’s dynamic.
Anyone who has seen an Iron and Wine show knows Beam likes to mix things up – a reggae-tinged version of one song here, an electric rocker version of another there. Indeed, even on the Woman King EP, released in February, the distorted electric guitar of “Evening on the Ground (Lilith’s Song)” lent a dramatic and excellent feel to an already well-written track. Those who enjoy this variation will appreciate In the Reins even more.
There’s the deep baritone of Tucson, Arizona-based flamenco singer Salvador Duran (whom Beam asked to play on the album after seeing him perform in the lobby of the Hotel Congress) adding a festive element to opener “He Lays in the Reins.” There are the buoyant horns that explode from the already cheerful “History of Lovers.” On “Red Dust” – a song that, stripped down, would fit nicely on either of Beam’s first two proper albums – a sassy organ/harmonica combo adds minimalistic fills throughout.
This is what’s so wonderful about an artist such as Beam. When pondering the lack of prolificacy in indie rock, it’s easy to get a little down simply because so many great songwriters just aren’t producing that many songs. Bands such as the Fiery Furnaces, Guided by Voices (rest in peace, you drunken fools) and Iron and Wine should make serious music appreciators stop and be thankful for their respective deluges of material.
Mini-albums and EPs such as this one serve as great transition tools for obviously evolving artists who are interested in trying out new sounds (the aforementioned horns, organ). Beam is still the tender-hearted tear-jerker who can toss off wonderful lines such as “I met my wife at a party where I drank too much” (from “16 Maybe Less”), but it’s nice to know that he’s not afraid to stretch his musical wings and that he’s certainly not going to quit putting out scads of music anytime soon. We should all be grateful for that.