The first collaborative mini album by Calexico and Iron & Wine, In the Reins, was really more of an Iron & Wine record with Calexico as backing band. Sure, Calexico shaped the music a lot, as theirs is an immediately identifiable sound, but all the songs are credited to Sam Beam Music, and Beam sings lead on all of them.
In the 14 years since, Calexico have gone from being a high-class engine room with some proper songs here and there to a real-deal songwriting band that also happen to be one of the best rhythm-sections-for-hire in the business, and Joey Burns has become a proper singer and frontman. Years to Burn, then, is closer to a 50/50 collaboration than In the Reins was, with Joey Burns writing Midnight Sun with his brother John, taking lead vocals on three songs and getting co-writing credits on Pájaro and Evil Eye (part of side two’s The Bitter Suite). The record as a whole feels like a genuine synthesis of his and Calexico’s musical voices in a way I find more convincing than the charming but perhaps patchier In the Reins.
The album begins with What Heaven’s Left. With John Convertino’s big, reverb-laden tom-tom fills, Beam’s primary-colour chord changes and touches of pedal steel and trumpet, it sounds exactly like what you’d hope for from the collaboration. Beam’s best songs often have short melodic phrases that follow a repeating rhythmic pattern but with notes that move with the chord changes*, making them instantly, comfortingly familiar without being repetitive. They’re elemental, as if dug out of the ground. The chorus of What Heaven’s Left (“I could be lost in the hills, laid on the street…”) is a pretty great example of how these types of tunes work. It’s simple, but doing simple well is far harder than is sometimes imagined.
Track two, Midnight Sun, is the Burns/Burns co-write, and it’s an odd confection: a short, repeated melody from Burns that Beam answers (Burns’s part descends; Beam, in quasi falsetto, goes up) laid over a second line-ish drum pattern from Convertino. It works, but perhaps having it as the second track makes it carry a little too much weight; it’s better in the context of the whole record than it is if you listen to it on its own. Full marks, though, for the fuzz-tone John Martynish solo.
Father Mountain is another Beam effort. As on What Heaven’s Left, Beam is in a beatific musical mood, even as his lyrics suggest something a little more complicated going on. It’s a song about leaving behind what appears to be the life laid out for you by others (in this case, a father who’s building a mansion on the mountain) to pursue your own happiness. The band plays it big and open, with a hint of stomp, masking the lyrics’ implications a little. I noted above that Beam has a gift for the simple melody built on instantly memorable short phrases. At his best, this allows him to create songs that feel like they must always have existed in folk memory. When he’s not quite on his game, it can make his songs sound a little nursery rhyme-ish. Father Mountain at times feels like it’s about to cross the line from simple to simplistic, but the addition of a strong middle eight pulls it over the line.
Outside El Paso is something very different. A 90-second instrumental built on Rob Burger’s prepared piano, Convertino’s free-form drums and Jacob Valenzuela’s dusty trumpet, it sounds appropriately like a blasted desert landscape, the sort of haunting warm-up that crops up on electric-era Miles Davis records. I’m always a bit disappointed it doesn’t lead into a 20-minute free-jazz epic, to be honest, though on its own terms it’s an album highlight and demonstrates the range and skill of the players involved.
Decorated by Burns’s and Beam’s interweaving acoustic guitars and the gorgeously understated piano and organ of Rob Burger**, Follow the Water is another of the album’s high points, its minor chords constantly resolving upwards in stepwise motion. Burns and Beam once again sound great in harmony on the chorus.
The album’s centrepiece is The Bitter Suite. It works much as Paul McCartney’s suite-songs do: the fragments are juxtaposed next to each other and left to get on with it rather than being genuinely linked musically. While the transitions may be a bit ungainly, the suite as a whole succeeds on the strength of its constituent parts. The mournful Pájaro is sung in Spanish by Jacob Valenzuela, while Beam’s Tennessee Train is starkly beautiful. Both songs feature the intriguing observation “There are dreams wild enough to pass the time” (Google translate tells me that that’s the translation in English of Pájaro’s first line), and the choruses of Beam’s Tennessee Train resolve with the phrase “Trains leave Tennessee moaning as they roll away” – Beam once again proving that he’s a master of the evocative and mysterious place name allusion.
Evil Eye, sandwiched between the two vocal songs, is basically a jam based on a drop-tuned acoustic guitar riff, with some wordless vocals on top. It’s fine (Valenzuela plays some more Miles-influenced trumpet – this time, laced with echo and delay à la Bitches Brew, and Convertino’s on good form, playing with brushes but giving his snare an unusually fierce pounding) but it’s rather overshadowed by what comes before and after. I’d have been fine if Pájaro and Tennessee Train had been left as separate songs.
(Finishing the suite with a voiceover proclaiming “life is bittersweet” is goofy as hell. Is it a sample from a movie? I couldn’t place it.)
The gorgeously sleepy title track, with a gentle, lullaby-ish vocal from Joey Burns, is the album’s penultimate track and another of its best moments. I particularly love the bar of 9/8 that turns the chorus back round on itself, and Valenzuela’s trumpet playing is spine-tinglingly lovely.
In Your Own Time closes the record. It’s one of Beam’s earliest songs, originally recorded 20 years ago when he was making recordings at home on a 4-track. On that recording, Beam’s voice is not much more than a whisper, and the song, well written as it is, sounds more like an intellectual exercise than something that the singer has lived and experienced for himself. He’s revived it down the years, and I’ve heard him sing it much more passionately, but I’m not sure I’ve heard him match Burns’s performance of it here. Once again, Calexico bring a sort of woozy bar-room swagger to the song, and Burns’s vocal, with Beam adding harmony, turns the song into something celebratory. It’s a great closing track.
Years to Burn is a very fine record, if not quite in the same league as Iron & Wine’s Beast Epic from 2017 and Calexico’s Edge of the Sun from 2015, which are both big favourites of mine. It’s a low-stakes kind of record, and it has the feel of friends hanging out and making music together. Which – the work that it takes to arrange and rehearse granted – is what it is, but it’s so hard to capture vibe and atmosphere on tape. Years to Burn, at its most expansive, intimate or joyful, is such a pleasing collection not just because of the quality of the songs and performances, but because of the way it feels. I’m seeing them at the Royal Festival Hall in November and can’t wait to hear these songs live.
*If it sounds strange that I’d remark on the concept of singing different notes over different chords, think about how many songs in the last 10-15 years have choruses that are built on singing the same melodic phrase over a I-V-vi-IV chord sequence.
**Burger’s a fantasticd multi-instrumentalist, much employed by a huge crop of singer-songwriters. As well as being a regular member of Sam Beam’s band, he can be found on recent/recent-ish records by Bob Weir, Aoife O’Donovan, Sera Cahoone, Alela Dianne, case/lang/veirs and Linda Thompson.