Years to Burn can’t help but be different from In the Reins. Back then, Calexico entered the studio with a long list of previous collaborations (first in Giant Sand, then backing the likes of Victoria Williams and Richard Buckner) and the knowledge that they loved Sam’s voice and his songs, but wondered if his material was so complete and self-contained that it lacked a way in, so hushed and delicate that it might be overwhelmed. For his part, Beam had been intimidated by their virtuosic playing and their deep comfort in an encyclopedic array of styles. “In my mind, I was a guy who knew three chords and recorded in a closet,” Sam says. “They were playing big stages and were superb musicians.”
Those fears were dispelled quickly. Calexico was bowled over by Beam’s many talents: “The arranging, the writing, his sense of rhythm, the quality of his vocals—and then there’s the experimental side of Sam,” Joey says. “They were the perfect band at the perfect time for me,” Sam adds. “I loved all their different sounds. They’re musical anthropologists, not regurgitating but absorbing what they discover.” Nearly 15 years on, “coming back to the project has to do with acknowledging how much impact the first record had for me in my life.”
Years to Burn was recorded in Nashville with noted producer Matt Ross-Spang over the course of five days at Sound Emporium, a fabled studio founded in the sixties by Cowboy Jack Clement and the site of countless landmark sessions in country and rock over the ensuing decades. It features contributions from veteran Calexico trumpet player Jacob Valenzuela and Paul Niehaus on pedal steel, along with frequent Beam cohorts Rob Burger (Tin Hat Trio) on piano and Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing, Fiona Apple) on bass.
Years to Burn features ten new original compositions. While Beam wrote all the songs for In the Reins, this recording features contributions from both Beam and Burns as well as from Convertino and those featured on the record. While the two may have taken differing approaches to songwriting, the spirit of collaboration was alive and well in the studio; Sam shared demos ahead of time and was ready for the others to con-tribute with arrangement ideas and instrumental parts, while Joey spontaneous as ev-er, came in with concepts and an eagerness to improvise.
“Life is hard. Awesome. And scary as shit. But it can lift you up if you let it,” Sam offers. “These are the things Joey and I write about now. And the title can encapsulate a lot of things. ‘Years to Burn’ could mean you’re cocky, you’ve got it made. Or, our life is ours to burn, to be inspired. Or you’re burned by life, brutalized. It’s an ambiguous title, because life is complicated. Let’s not talk like teenagers about love, desire, pain, ‘cause we’re not teenagers. And that’s not a bad thing.”
“This project had to find the right time,” Joey concludes. “We’re all different people than we were in 2004, and music helps to bridge some of the gaps. For all the things going on in our world and in each of our lives, this connection, this friendship, this love that we have—this album is a vehicle for that bond. It’s a chance to see where we’re at, take stock and be there for our friends.”