Calexico & Iron And Wine
Calexico & Iron And Wine
Calexico and Iron & Wine first made an artistic connection with In the Reins, the 2005 EP that brought Sam Beam, Joey Burns and John Convertino together. The acclaimed collaboration introduced both acts to wider audiences and broadened Beam’s artistic horizons, but it was the shared experience of touring together in the tradition of Bob Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue”—in particular, one terrifyingly fraught leg of that tour—that cemented their bond. “We were driving from Toronto to Detroit to Chicago in a snowstorm,” Joey says. “It was one of the scariest drives we’ve ever done. We were in our 15-passenger van with a trailer. John did almost all the driving, and everyone in the van was completely silent. Everywhere we were seeing cars and trucks off the road. And we were listening to that Johnny Cash American Recordings album. It was intense. When we made it safe and arrived in Chicago, the relief we felt was an incredible experience. I’ll never forget that glimpse into the importance of life and the risks that you take.” *** Their metaphorical roads diverged in the years that followed, but they kept in touch and cross-pollinated where they could. Burns cropped up on Iron & Wine’s 2007 album Shepherd’s Dog; Beam sang on Calexico’s Carried to Dust (2008) and Edge of the Sun (2015); steel guitarist Paul Niehaus, a longtime Calexico sideman, joined Beam’s touring band. They played a benefit showed together in New York in 2013 and occasionally shared festival stages for a song or two. But although they often talked about rekindling their collaboration in the studio and on the stage, it wasn’t until last year that their schedules aligned. Years to Burn can’t help but be different from In the Reins. Back then, Calexico entered the studio with a long list of previous collaborations (first in Giant Sand, then backing the likes of Victoria Williams and Richard Buckner) and the knowledge that they loved Sam’s voice and his songs, but wondering if his material was so complete and self-contained that it lacked a way in, so hushed and delicate that it might be overwhelmed. For his part, Beam had been intimidated by their virtuosic playing and their deep comfort in an encyclopedic array of styles. “In my mind, I was a guy who knew three chords and recorded in a closet,” Sam says. “They were playing big stages and were superb musicians.” Those fears were dispelled quickly. Calexico was bowled over by Beam’s many talents: “The arranging, the writing, his sense of rhythm, the quality of his vocals—and then there’s the experimental side of Sam,” Joey says. “I’m from a jazz background in high school, trained classically in college, and played punk and garage rock in my twenties before I landed with Giant Sand. That variety and that openness is so important to me. And with Sam, he was so open to it in his songs.” “They were the perfect band at the perfect time for me,” Sam adds. “I loved all their different sounds. They’re musical anthropologists, not regurgitating but absorbing what they discover.” Nearly 15 years on, “coming back to the project has to do with acknowledging how much impact the first record had for me in my life.” *** Beam, Burns and Convertino reconvened in Nashville for four days of recording in December 2018. Nobody was keen to retread old ground. They even joked about calling the record Nostalgia’s A Bitch. The challenge was to make it new. The change of venue—from Calexico’s home base of Tucson, where In the Reins was tracked—was one part of the effort. Together with Niehaus, veteran Calexico trumpet player Jacob Valenzuela and frequent Beam cohorts Rob Burger (Tin Hat Trio) on piano and Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing, Fiona Apple) on bass, they settled in at the Sound Emporium, a fabled studio founded in the sixties by Cowboy Jack Clement and the site of countless landmark sessions in country and rock over the ensuing decades. Convertino got chills when he found a framed photo of R.E.M. on the wall: Document was recorded there. Another added ingredient was engineer Matt Ross-Spang, whose recent resume includes producing Margo Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, working with Memphis legends like Al Green in the Sam Phillips studio that’s now Ross-Spang’s home turf, and winning a Grammy for mixing Jason Isbell’s album Something More Than Free (another Sound Emporium project). Ross-Spang was assisted by Rachel Moore; he shares production credits with Beam, Burns and Convertino. Ross-Spang and Beam kept each other loose. “They were constantly making jokes, cracking each other up,” Burns says. “It was funny because Matt and Sam are very similar—similar personality, similar beards.” (Beam: “His beard is much smaller than mine.”) Beam wrote all the songs for In the Reins. He took the lead again here, bringing five songs to the session, but Burns added one of his own in the end too. They took differing approaches; Sam shared meticulous demos ahead of time and was ready with arrangement ideas and instrumental parts, while Joey spontaneous as ever, came in with concepts and an eagerness to improvise. Upon arriving in Nashville, he also penned a tune. “We’d rented this big Airbnb walking distance from the studio,” Burns says. “We got there and I had a little time. I thought about what’s missing from the material that I knew we were going to work on, and I wrote a song. That was ‘Midnight Sun’. I thought it was a more open piece of music, and that it will open up even more to improvisation when we do it live.” “The first time, we basically backed up Sam playing his songs,” John says. “This time we allowed for improvisation. Joey was willing to offer song ideas and Sam was open to it. It was more collaborative.” “With my own stuff, I’m always fighting expectations,” Beam admits. “It’s hard to stay focused on that sense of discovery.” In contrast, this session was all about “making something together, the act of doing it together. We were coming in doing a version of ourselves, and we had these nostalgic melodies, but we were trying to surprise ourselves.” To that end, “we decided to record live as much as possible, limit overdubs, maximize playing and performing,” Joey adds. “We had no rehearsal in advance, we just went into the studio, and there was not a lot of planning. We thought, let’s not replicate who we’ve been, but do something more experimental and fun. There’s a beautiful contrast in the music we all make in our bands. When you’re sharing music with others, that’s when sparks start flying and ideas come about.” *** Beam’s opener “What Heaven’s Left” has the bones of a classic country weeper and Niehaus’s crying pedal steel to match, but Valenzuela’s horn—first floating, then high-stepping—tugs the tune towards R&B. The lyric gives thanks—to a lover, a sibling or friend, maybe music itself: “You take my doubt and let me believe/You find the lightning in the tops of my trees,” Sam sings. His writing “is a beautiful gift from someone who is so deep and so poetic to open up,” Burns says. On Joey’s “Midnight Sun” the two singers trade haunted-sounding verses over shimmering steel until the song devolves into a corrosive electric lead like a dying siren from Burns. Next up is “Father Mountain” one of Beam’s signature cinematic strummers with an inescapably sticky melody and the rightful lead single from Years to Burn. Burns doubles Beam’s lead vocal with an almost ghostly high harmony and Burger’s keys twinkle through the mix. Then things get really interesting. “John and I proposed doing this instrumental, free piece and Sam said great,” Joey recounts. That became “Outside El Paso” named for the Texas border town where Convertino has lived the last five years. Inspired equally by the post-rock bands Calexico rubbed elbows with on Chicago’s Touch and Go label in the nineties and their own sonic explorations on various tour EPs, it’s a showcase for Valenzuela, “a great improviser on trumpet,” John says. “I wanted moments in the studio where he could be free. In folk or pop songs you have to be so specific, you’re playing a melody or an accent. I wanted a contrast where he could improvise.” “It’s a palate cleanser,” Sam says. “I spend so much time on words and chord changes, whereas those guys, their musicality and songwriting are more on even ground. Us doing that on the record was a way of stretching out. The way we play live shows together is similar, so this was a way of bringing the stage into the studio.” “Follow the Water” returns to Beam’s comfort zone, foregrounding his vocals and a percussive refrain about being buffeted by life: “Everybody climbs on the rollercoaster car/Gets rattled by the track, up and down, around and back/Whoever I was, no matter who you are/No one’s walking off the same.” The ensuing eight minutes are both the solution to something of a studio puzzle and the pinnacle of the session’s free exchange of musical ideas. The pieces are “Tennessee Train” an acoustic sketch with a lyric Beam completed just as the session began, and “Evil Eye” a two-chord groove fit for improvisatory vamping. Each was more than worthy, but neither seemed to stand alone—until they were paired with another piece, “Pájaro,” based on lyric fragments drawn from “Tennessee Train” then translated into Spanish and sung by Valenzuela over pretty acoustic picking. Together the three form a single song cycle of three mini-movements whose title arose from a tossed-off joke that wound up hitting home. In a quiet moment at the end of a take, bassist Sternberg quipped, “Life is bittersweet” Convertino remembers, “We all laughed, but then we said, ‘Yeah. Hell yeah.’ And that became ‘The Bitter Suite’.” Its disparate parts are “linked and connected but different windows to our worlds,” Joey says. In the suite and throughout these songs, “you can feel a spirit that reflects a sense of hope when times are tough.” There are “minor chords and major chords, openness versus chaos, harmonies between Sam and myself, an uplifting feeling paired with melancholy, blues, sadness. It’s a combination not easily described.” “Music is storytelling. Even if there aren’t words, there’s dialogue happening all through,” John adds. “These dialogues tell stories of where we’re at right now, and the beauty of music is you don’t have to talk about it. You don’t have to describe or instruct but go with intuition. For me the most important part is trusting the intuition in your heart and hope it translates to the listener or the people at the show.” The set closes with a pair of tunes written by Beam but sung by Burns. “I love doing that. You hear it different,” Sam says. “We tried to do it as much as we could—tag team, I’ll sing one of yours, you sing one of mine. The point is to create as much variety as possible.” The title track is a subtle stunner, adorned with gorgeous brass and steel, played with a lullaby’s tender grace and delivered by Joey with delicate restraint. The lyric suggests a reflection on life’s phases, its difficulties and pleasures, dreams and disappointments, connections made and broken, past and still to come. “Life is hard. Awesome. And scary as shit. But it can lift you up if you let it,” Sam offers. “These are the things Joey and I write about now. And the title can encapsulate a lot of things. ‘Years to Burn’ could mean you’re cocky, you’ve got it made. Or, our life is ours to burn, to be inspired. Or you’re burned by life, brutalized. It’s an ambiguous title, because life is complicated. Let’s not talk like teenagers about love, desire, pain, ‘cause we’re not teenagers. And that’s not a bad thing.” The recording, and the partnership, came full circle on the closer. Penned some two decades ago, “In Your Own Time” was one of Beam’s earliest demos and the first of his songs Calexico heard. With some extra studio time on the final day, Burns learned the tune and the band recorded it as a shared, shambling shuffle that rides Burger’s loping, homey keys. Joey and Sam trade leads—Burns’s Latin-tinged, Beam’s a bit of bluesy slide—and share the vocal. “We only want a life that’s well worth living/And sleeping ain’t no kind of life at all,” they sing in tandem. “Come meet the family and get warm by the fire/Someone will catch you if you want to fall.” *** People grow older. Move on. Change. Kids grow up, make us proud, move away. Some relationships end. Others blossom. National divides deepen, neighbors tear at each other—or march together. The road is dark and icy, but a steady hand keeps the van steered true. “As touring musicians, we all have families at home, but we form a sort of family together on the road,” Joey reflects. “Then we say goodbye and go home to our real families. So to reunite feels good, and to reestablish that connection to friends and music, and to find new directions and perspectives on life.” “I can’t overstate how much of a family feeling it is,” Sam agrees. “We have a team.” “This project had to find the right time,” Joey concludes. “We’re all different people than we were in 2004, and music helps to bridge some of the gaps. For all the things going on in our world and in each of our lives, this connection, this friendship, this love that we have—this album is a vehicle for that bond. It’s a chance to see where we’re at, take stock and be there for our friends.” ANDERS SMITH LINDALL CHICAGO FEBRUARY 2019
The songs were written, the band was ready, and the studio was booked. Fans and critics alike were eagerly awaiting the follow-up to Natalie Prass’s 2015 self-titled breakout album, a collection hailed by NPR as “a majestic debut,” but perhaps no one was more eager for record number two than Prass herself. She’d waited what felt like a lifetime to release that first album and then toured the world relentlessly behind it, sharing bills with the likes of Fleet Foxes and The War on Drugs on her way to becoming one of the year’s most talked-about artists. By the time recording sessions were scheduled to begin, she was absolutely dying to launch the next chapter, which made what happened next all the more shocking: she scrapped the whole thing.
“The record was ready to go, and then the election happened,” explains Prass. “I was devastated. It made me question what it means to be a woman in America, whether any of the things I thought were getting better were actually improving, who I am and what I believe in. I knew I would be so upset with myself if I didn’t take the opportunity to say some of the things that meant so much to me, so I decided to rewrite the record. I needed to make an album that was going to get me out of my funk, one that would hopefully lift other people out of theirs, too, because that’s what music is all about.”
The result is ‘The Future And The Past,’ a stunning work of art and a powerful feminist statement from an artist who’s only just begun to tap into the full range of her considerable powers. Reuniting Prass with producer and long-time friend Matthew E. White, the album is at once celebratory and defiant, capturing all the joy, frustration, fear and hope inherent in modern womanhood as it synthesizes the influence of everything from vintage gospel and 80’s pop to 90’s R&B and Brazilian Tropicália. Prass displays a rare gift for transcending time and place in her songwriting, tapping into age-old struggles for autonomy and equality that resonate profoundly in the present.
Though she’d been honing her craft and paying her dues for years, Prass first emerged to international acclaim in 2015, when her debut record earned its rightfully rapturous reception. Rolling Stone swooned for the Virginia native’s “beguiling voice and refined taste,” while Pitchfork praised her album as a “smoldering perspective on passionate romance,” and The New Yorker simply called it “timeless.” She appeared on the Martin Scorsese-helmed HBO series Vinyl, performed on the BBC’s Later… With Jools Holland, and CBS This Morning, and racked up more than ten million streams on Spotify. Before long, she was headlining dates around the world and playing festival stages from Bonnaroo and Rock En Seine to End Of The Road and Forecastle.
Once touring for the album had wrapped up, Prass took a stab at writing in new cities with fresh faces, spending time in London, LA, and Nashville, but it only served to reinforce the feeling that she belonged back home in Richmond. There, she holed up with White for intensive creative sessions as she attempted to work through the difficult existential questions she found herself facing in a country that expected women to be seen and not heard.
“I went over to his house every single day, and we’d work from 10am to 5pm straight just writing and listening and talking,” she explains. “It was very therapeutic for me, and I think it actually helped Matt to understand my point of view as a woman, too.”
Recorded once again at White’s Spacebomb Studios, the album showcases both a new political depth to Prass’s songwriting and a bold willingness to follow her muse wherever it leads. While her debut was marked by elaborate horn and string arrangements, ‘The Future And The Past’ finds Prass stripping her songwriting back to its most essential elements. Groove reigns supreme as she channels Dionne Warwick and Janet Jackson and lets her dazzling vocals dance across funky instrumental arrangements. Album opener “Oh My” sounds like a lost slice of 80’s gold, complete with off-kilter Talking Heads-esque guitar, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a song that’s pure 2018 as Prass sings, “Seems like every day we’re losing when we choose to read the news.” Losing’s not an option, though, and Prass makes it abundantly clear that women won’t even entertain the notion of moving backwards. On “Ain’t Nobody” she confidently promises that there “ain’t nobody can take this from our hands,” while the soulful, swaggering “Sisters” plays out like a mission statement for the entire album, as Prass and a chorus of female backup singers proclaim, “I wanna say it loud / for all the ones held down / we gotta change the plan.”
“I didn’t want to point any fingers, and I didn’t want to sound desperate or defeated,” she explains. “I wanted to stay positive and joyful. The world’s obviously not perfect, but there’s nothing we can’t do if we love and support each other. It was really important to me that these songs make people feel that way.”
It’s a principle that guides Prass throughout the album, no matter her subject material. On “Short Court Style,” she taps into Diana Ross disco and reflects on the bliss a healthy relationship can bring, while the hypnotic “Hot For The Mountain” assures all the outcasts and misfits that they’re not alone, and the playful “Never Too Late” conjures up a world where a wish upon a star can bring back lost love. Even in the album’s darker moments, like the Karen Carpenter-inspired ballad “Far From You” or the cooing pop gem “Nothing To Say,” Prass refuses to let go of her rebelliously optimistic streak. “I will never kneel when power is in fear and aimed upon me,” she sings on the South American-influenced “Ship Go Down,” adding “no no I am never drowning” in a breathy delivery that’s light as a feather and tough as nails.
Ultimately, ‘The Future And The Past’ is a record that’s about neither of those things. Instead, it’s about womanhood and the modern world and the things we can do right this very moment to make them both better through love and support and camaraderie. The album may have been born out of deep doubt and disappointment, but it insists on faith and optimism, and it succeeds because Prass leads by example, embracing her femininity on her own indomitable terms. “Music’s supposed to make you feel better,” she reflects, and in that respect alone, she’s created a genuine triumph.