Musical collaborations can be a dicey proposition. The blending of two styles and sounds can lead to the cancellation of the aspects of each that make them interesting and unique in the first place, which in turn leads to an inferior record. Iron & Wine and Calexico decided to tempt fate and hook up in 2004 and In the Reins is the result. The record manages to blend the best aspects of the two groups and comes off a winner in all respects. You get Iron & Wine's melodicism, emotional depth, and literary grace backed by Calexico's desert-bleached C&W orchestral splendor. The record is probably pitched more in the I&W camp as Iron & Wine's Sam Beam wrote all the songs and sings his moody miniature portraits of desperation in a breathy, shivers-down-your-spine croon. Calexico color in his compositions with pedal steels, vibraphone, and meandering trumpets, and lead them out of the insular Florida swamp and into the wide-screen West. None of Beam's songs feel like between-album throwaways and in fact a few rate among his best (the aching and staggeringly beautiful "Dead Man's Will," "He Lays in the Reins."). They almost all sound wonderful; the wider range of musical colors opens up his songs and brings in some moods and sounds you might not expect on an Iron & Wine record. Case in point is "A History of Lovers," which comes equipped with a boogie beat, a glittering Vegas horn section, and actually rocks out very convincingly. Calexico really pulls a rabbit out of the hat there as Beam is about the last person in the music biz you would expect to rock out convincingly. The only place where the pairing falters is on the slick and facile "Red Dust," which starts off as an intimate blues ballad with just Beam and guitars, then shifts to a barroom bluesy stomp featuring some very clichéd harp soloing. Luckily, it is a brief misstep that doesn't wreck an otherwise excellent record. Fans of both bands will want to get In the Reins because it rates favorably with their best work and on a couple of songs ("A History of Lovers," "Dead Man's Will") the sum of their collaboration creates music greater than their parts. A rare and wonderful occurrence that; don't let it slip past you.
AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra