Order benefits from chaos, and vice versa. One helps illuminate the benefits of the other. And so it is that Sam Beam's soft-spoken lyrics mesh with Calexico's chaotic, lonesome border rhythms so perfectly, so well, that upon hearing their new collaborative EP, In The Reins, there's a why-didn't-they-think-of-this-sooner moment.
Well, they actually had.
Beam-known artistically as Iron & Wine-was signed to Sub Pop after the record company heard the songs that would later become his first LP, The Creek Drank the Cradle. In planning the recording, someone suggested that Calexico should serve as the backing band.
Instead, out of the 20-odd songs that Beam sent to Sub Pop, he recorded 12 of them, mostly on acoustic guitar in an empty studio. The Creek Drank The Cradle centered on rites of passage, and Beam says the songs he resurrected for In the Reins didn't fit that theme.
"It was good to revisit them," Beam says. "I got to reinterpret them, to revitalize them in a way."
It wasn't a move without doubts. Beam's strengths are his phenomenal lyrics and commanding use of quiet space in songs. The relative cacophony of a full band could have been a distraction. But songs like "Red Dust"-which has only two verses to go with three minutes of Calexico's bluesy, countrified instrumental passages-would not have worked nearly as well in Iron & Wine's stripped-down arrangement.
"I go back and forth," Beam says. "Sometimes I think the lyrics are real important, and then sometimes I just want to have fun, just fuck around with the songs. It's sort of like how an actor works on a lot of parts."
Speaking over the phone from his new home in Texas, Beam's voice suggests there's a big, kind smile peeking through his wooly beard.
"Sam is a gracious, patient and extremely talented person," says Calexico's Joey Burns. "Working with him in the studio showed me how much he loves people and music. Sam brought out a lot of amazing performances on this session."
Neither Calexico nor Iron & Wine are radio bands. Yet if there's a single from their new album, it's the opening track, "He Lays in the Reins." The song kicks off with a subdued but driving drum beat, acoustic guitar strums and sprinkles of piano. Beam comes in with his angel-with-laryngitis voice that seems to almost harmonize with itself, and slowly, gently, you're caught up in a swirling dust-devil, floating across the desert for three minutes and 43 seconds until it sets you down somewhere in the heart of Mexico. The only way to get back is to start the song over.
"That song is sort of about the things that control you," Beam explains. "Whether you know it or you don't."
Formerly employed as a professor of cinematography at Miami International University of Art & Design, Beam has since quit his job to focus on music full-time. He says the next Iron & Wine LP, which he plans to record next year, has already been written and picks up where his recent Woman King EP left off.
"By the good graces, I've been able to make music my living," he says.
As for Calexico, the Arizona ensemble recently recorded theme music for Max Cannon, who is going to convert his "Read Meat" comic strip into a series for Comedy Central's broadband channel. Burns says they also plan to finish a new studio album this fall, to be released in spring 2006. Burns walked away from the collaboration with Beam with a positive feeling.
"I learned from Sam the idea of simplicity and to focus on key elements that go into a song and recording," he explains. "I suppose the reverse could be said for what he learned from working with us-that chaos can be a beautiful element to throw into the mix on occasion."
Iron & Wine and Calexico play at House of Blues, 8 p.m. on Oct. 17. $20-$22. 619-299-BLUE.