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Thursday, Nov. 17, 2005 11:47 am

A spoonful of sugar

Add Calexico to the mix, and it's easier to like Iron & Wine

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Calexico and Iron & Wine In the Reins (Overcoat)
Unless we’re talking about, oh, I don’t know, Ken Mehlman’s sex life, there are no guilty pleasures. If pleasures could induce guilt, confessing them wouldn’t be the hipster’s favorite parlor game, the subject of so many self-aggrandizing/self-effacing conversations in which Totally Unique Rockdudes strive to outdo one another by professing/confessing their not-so-secret love for Hall & Oates, Shania Twain, Air Supply, and other noted crapmongers. The guilty pleasure is yet another consumerist fantasy based on the fallacious (and profitable) premise that we can assert our identities through our tastes, that autonomy and authenticity are only an iPod click away, that Totally Unique Rockdudes are not, in fact, interchangeable earbud-sporting sheep. The guilty pleasure is the bling of the anti-establishment establishment: “My unironic love for Ashlee Simpson makes my love for Amon Düül richer, less suspect, more . . . me.” But what about Guilty Pleasure’s homely stepsister, Acquired Taste — the band that your favorite Webzine scribe is always going on about, the band that you know you really ought to love, according to your best friend and the Amazon customer-recommendation software, but somehow just can’t? OK, enough hemming and hawing: Despite disciplined effort and self-examination, I’ve never been able to muster more than a lukewarm appreciation for Iron & Wine. Embarrassing! What chromosomal deficit prevents me from joining my friends and colleagues in extolling the genius of I&W mastermind Sam Beam, who, by all accounts, seems like a smart, nice guy with excellent taste who attracts listeners and collaborators of a similar mien? It can’t be the fact that he never sings above a whisper, that his idea of rocking out is to layer on a couple more banjos, that he likes to sing about kisses from tall stable girls, about red dust and gray stallions and dusk and autumn and love that speaks beyond the grave and all manner of folk-tested, poet-approved hokum. Although some might legitimately rag on Beam’s old-timey locutions, hyperstylized imagery, and flagrant Cormac McCarthy-isms, I know that my ambivalence can’t stem from any of these reasonable reasons, because I love plenty of other bands that commit all these crimes and then some. So I must confront my inner bigot: Is it Beam’s full-on Jerry Garcia beard that bums me out? Is it that fat, pubic chin chum that makes me free-associate about the last glistening glob of his wife’s vegan casserole; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu; my anxious hippie childhood; communal toilets? Because I know that it’s deeply and unforgivably stupid to hold a fella’s facial hair against him, I’ve spent a good two years trying to either drink of the I&W Kool-Aid or find a less embarrassing reason for only sorta kinda liking a band that I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to love. And now, just to up the ante, along comes Calexico, one of my very favorite bands. By collaborating with I&W on an album (billed as an EP, although it’s 10 songs and 28 minutes long), one that consists entirely of unreleased Beam compositions, my idols have thrown down the gauntlet: “Love Sam Beam,” they seem to say on In the Reins, “or admit that you’re a fraud.” And so I [diligently] admire the decorous wordplay of [that long-lost Eagles outtake] “A History of Lovers,” and I [try to] groove to the [suspiciously jam-bandish] swamp boogie of “Red Dust,” and I remind myself throughout how much I love the [tragically wasted] contributions of Calexico, whose undulating desert vistas [almost] persuade me that my I&W problem is a mirage. And I hope it’s not the beard.
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