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Calexico/Iron & Wine - Years to Burn Music Album Reviews

It took more than a decade to follow up In the Reins, but its successor reveals musicians who’ve learned to corral swarms of instruments and styles into a newly complex sound.

When Calexico and Iron & Wine released In the Reins, their first collaboration together, back in 2005, both bands were in a state of flux. Sam Beam had just released the Woman King EP, which added a few new musical twists to his disarmingly intimate acoustic songs, and he was two years away from releasing The Shepherd’s Dog, which would redirect the next decade of his music into ever more elaborate jazz-folk compositions. Meanwhile, Joey Burns and John Convertino were incorporating Latin American styles such as samba and cumbia, not to mention more vocalists and musicians, into an increasingly orchestral and cinematic sound. An indie-rock eon later, it’s easy to forget how new In the Reins sounded at the time, how it represented tentative steps forward by acts who would become tenacious music lifers.

That 2005 mini-album becomes a useful point against which to measure both bands’ growth. If it sometimes felt like a great backing band and a great frontman working in parallel lanes, its successor Years to Burn mixes those roles up to reveal musicians who’ve learned to corral swarms of instruments and styles into a newly complex sound. Nowhere is that more apparent than on “The Bitter Suite,” which is not a Marillion cover but a musical triptych showcasing the various voices in this collaboration. It opens with Calexico trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela singing a Spanish-language overture, based on Beam’s lyrics about “exploring dreams wild enough to pass the time”—one of those Iron & Wine phrases that sounds straightforward but demands some unpacking. Fluidly the song morphs: first into a lowdown desert groove, its rhythms fraying at the edges, and then into a quiet finale, Beam and his deftly picked guitar commenting on what’s come before. The sections complement each other nicely but not too perfectly, creating just enough friction between them to catch a spark. Despite that hacky title, “The Bitter Suite” is certainly the most compositionally ambitious song either entity has released in years.

Nothing else on Years to Burn complicates the equation quite so radically, although there are compelling flourishes and fresh twists on familiar tropes. Calexico invest “Father Mountain” with a kind of pop stomp, a performance that reinforces the catchiness of Beam’s hooks. Tracing the lifelong arc of a beleaguered relationship, opener “What Heaven’s Left” ratchets emotional tumult to a dusty country-soul arrangement that culminates in a coda where trumpets dance around each other, offering more hope and reconciliation than the lyrics extend.

These two groups always intended to record a follow-up to In the Reins, and they’ve guested on each other’s subsequent albums. But it took them more than a decade to align their schedules, and Years to Burn might be better for that lifetime in between. Fittingly, it’s a record that’s all about time and how we measure it: against our own memories, against other people, again previous albums. “We only want a life that’s well worth living,” Beam sings on closer “In Your Own Time,” “and sleeping ain’t no kind of life at all.” Such a line might come across as too obvious if it didn’t sound so hard-learned, if the music surrounding it weren’t so imaginative. Comparing the two releases, it’s clear that Calexico and Iron & Wine have found a way over the years to leave a little more mystery in the words and let the music provide more of the clues.

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