Review: Years to Burn
I was lucky enough to see Calexico stomp through ninety minutes of live genius last year at London’s Shepherds Bush O2 venue, promoting their album The Thread That Keeps Us. I’m a fan, and loved the consistent vibe of the songs the band presented that night, both old and new. However, any chance to get these guys mixing it up with old friend Iron & Wine, as they do on Years to Burn, makes the thought of a next, possibly collaborative, gig tantalizing.
Ever since the 2005 EP In the Reins, apparently Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam wanted to work again with Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Covertino, and vice versa, but, hey, schedules and life intervened. A mere 14 years later they’ve made it work, hurrah! and while eight tracks might be a bit stingy, we fans will take it.
Years to Burn – Calexico and Iron & Wine
Years to Burn is the result, and that creative intimacy is evident. The three main amigos make gorgeous music together, but leave enough room for trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela, pedal steel player Paul Niehaus, bass player Sebastian Steinberg and keyboardist Rob Burger, all of whom had worked with Beam or Calexico previously, to shine. (More about these movable musical parts is found in a great piece by Anders Smith Lindall for SubPop.)
So, is this just a loved-up jam session, or are we invited to this party?
You’ll know you are welcome right off the bat, as the low-key production of the opener, “What Heaven’s Left”, kicks off with a muttered “one, two, three…” and then there you are, standing in the back of the studio, feeling like everything is very, very on point as the harmonies draw you in.
By the time a whiff of Roy Orbison, then a bit of England Dan and John Ford Coley, sneak in in the third track, “Father Mountain”, you wouldn’t be wrong to think about fishing out those headphones and relaxing back into a naugahyde recliner.
Hang on just a sec.
Beam, who is Iron & Wine if you weren’t familiar, wrote most of the tracks here, and he explores many moods on Years to Burn. “Follow The Water,” is kind of poppy, certainly mainstream enough for these artists, but then he turns things inside out on the atmospheric “Midnight Sun,” and even invites your discomfort on the depends-on-your-mood “Outside El Paso,” which conjures up the anticipation of a jazz quartet tuning up pre-performance, ready to play a Jim Croce track.
“Bitter Suite”, due to its length, might be the intended focal point to Years to Burn, but I found the tonal shifts here, all within one track, a tiny bit jarring. From the Spanish-sung acoustic duet “Pájaro” (I believe this is some sort of bird, sorry, I took French at school which is less than useful for Calexico lyrics), the three-parter moves into the instrumental and trumpet-scattered “Evil Eye,” and then Beam’s vocals return to finish it out on “Tennessee Train.”
Years to Burn finishes strong
The album finishes with “In Your Own Time”, sung by Burns and written, I read in the above piece, some twenty years ago by Beam. It comes after the somber title track, almost as an upbeat pseudo-palate cleansing message, heard over the end credits, “In your own time, you’ll dance in the moonlight… I’ll be good to you, and then I’ll be gone.”
Woah. But all is good, as we finish, as Beam invites us to “come meet the family and sit by the fire… someone will catch you if you want to fall.”
Interesting to sit on that foreward-facing track for ages and then give it to a collaborator to vocally interpret. Burns sells it wonderfully, like an older, wiser friend, who’s been down that road and has something to share.
I can’t think of a nicer idea than sitting by that fire.
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A former ABC National, Dallas and Atlanta radio personality, Martina O'Boyle is now making movies and covering culture in London, Dublin, and as far in Europe as the cheapie flights will take her, for Pop Culture Beast.