Samuel Beam was toiling away in seemingly irrevocable anonymity when the pipedream that all artists secretly harbor came true for him: he was discovered by a record company exec. Having been thus scouted he was contracted to a record label, albeit a small one, and asked to submit some of his work to the company.
Rather than conform to the company's expectations and send in a few tossed off demos, he instead elected to single-handedly pen, perform and produce two full albums (at home no less); the label contemplated releasing each in their entirety, but dismissed the idea and subsequently issued a single LP consisting of the best material from the two sessions, reserving the remainder of the content for future works should the success of the album merit them.
This rags-to-riches fairy tale is made all the more bewildering by the fact that, while Beam is profoundly gifted, his style is hardly conducive toward mainstream acceptance or success; his deliberate, slow paced and cerebral approach to music hardly renders him a viable commercial commodity, and it's difficult to imagine what his benefactors saw in him that lead them to recruit him to their label.
Nevertheless Beam was given the opportunity that most struggling artists dream of, and by all means he intended to make the most of it. Assuming the sobriquet Iron & Wine (a perplexing bit of nomenclature given that the name suggests a band rather than an individual), Beam produced a plethora of tracks, each solely consisting of his own vocals and acoustic guitarwork.
There's a certain (justified) stigma toward introspective singer-songwriters, as the genre has spawned legions of talentless, pretentious me-too artists who are capable of little more than pouring their hearts out into bland, derivative confessional anthems, hiding behind the label of 'honesty' as if that, divorced from any real skill or intelligence, is a major asset.
There are, however, artists operating in that mode who possess true talent, and while they're largely obscured and obstructed by their less gifted brethren some of them are endowed with sufficient skill that they can transcend that genre and emerge as pivotal figures in the contemporary music scene. Samuel Beam is one such artist, bringing actual depth and intelligence into a stagnant, over-saturated form.
Admittedly not all of Beam's lyrics hold up to the scrutiny of a prolonged inspection of a lyrics sheet, but in the context of the album itself they all work beautifully, seamlessly interwoven with his striking, spare music. Better still, most of his lyrics are indeed quite intelligent, constituting some of the finest, most moving poetry from the indie rock scene in recent years; he's not a Cohen or a Dylan, but there's still a subtle eloquence imbued in his verse, always ameliorated by how elegantly his lyrics complement his material.
As for Beam's style, his work consists of beautiful, haunting and minimalistic music, complete with sparse arrangements and a decidedly methodical approach. Taking his cues from the likes of Nick Drake, whose influence can be felt throughout the album, Beam pens subtle yet deeply effective tunes, strumming acoustic guitar passages of a deceptive simplicity, always sure to invest each note with beauty and emotion.
Beam's work recalls numerous singer-songwriters; while Drake, as alluded to before, is a transparent influence, Iron & Wine's music also conjures memories of myriad other likeminded artists, from the incomparable JJ Cale to virtuoso guitarist Mark Knopfler. Like the work of those prodigiously talented musicians, Beam's music is highly penetrating, affecting the listener on a very deep, emotional level. He knows how to make the most out of a spare arrangement, adopting a less-is-more approach that never feels forced, calculated or inorganic.
Indeed, Beam's material is minimalistic beauty at its finest, achieving this subtle aural grandeur not only with his proficient, masterful guitarwork but also with his gorgeous vocals, which always perfectly match the music. Furthermore, beyond their beauty most of the melodies are actually quite catchy, as both instrumental and vocal hooks abound on the album; they may be subtle and understated but they're none the less potent for it.
Another major asset on The Creek Drank The Cradle is its consistency; the album has a highly cohesive feel, an atmosphere that permeates each track while never making the CD feel monotonous. Likewise each song is both well written and adroitly performed, and the fact that every aspect of the album is the vision of a single individual makes it all the more impressive.
Thus The Creek Drank The Cradle is an exceptionally strong debut, showcasing Beam's minimalistic brilliance. From the gorgeous Bird Stealing Bread to the moody The Rooster Moans to the subtle menace that underscores An Angry Blade the album remains phenomenal throughout, strong on both a song-by-song level and as a complete whole. For a debut the album is beyond auspicious, depicting an artist already in his prime. There are no first album jitters or immature distractions, merely a parade of subtle majesty from a craftsman who knows how to get the most out of every single note where most rock artists would communicate little with an entire verse. Beam may not be an instrumental virtuoso or lyrical genius yet his humble brilliance always shines through, animating a work of profound beauty and haunting resonance. While the record label may not have discovered a goldmine (and many are apt to be bored by the album's slow, deliberate pace and lack of conventional pop hooks), they have discovered something far more valuable, if not for them then for the listener.
The rating for The Sea & The Rhythm may be misleading, as the fact of the matter is that every song featured on it is quite strong; ergo the deduction stems not from any qualitative issues, but rather from its extreme brevity, as the EP contains a mere five songs amounting to little more than twenty minutes.
Stylistically the EP is indistinguishable from its full length predecessor, as these five tracks are culled from precisely the same sessions as The Creek Drank The Cradle; thus the EP's something akin to a coda for Beam's seminal debut, lacking any real identity of its own.
This isn't a liability, however, as The Creek Drank The Cradle was a stellar album and I have no objections toward a faithful continuation of that sound. Due to its status as an EP there's no need for any trailblazing efforts or attempts at artistic progression, something that would have been impossible anyway given that both the LP and EP songs were composed and recorded at the same time.
What matters is that not only were The Sea & The Rhythms' five tracks derived from the The Creek Drank The Cradle sessions but they're likewise on par with nearly anything recorded from those performances. These songs were, given their caliber, presumably not excised for quality reasons, and are all eminently worthy of inclusion on Beam's debut itself, and likely would have been were it not for length concerns on the part of the record company.
A synopsis of the EP would largely be redundant given its resemblance to Beam's first effort, but suffice it to say that The Sea & The Rhythm is a work of minimalistic beauty, elegant spare arrangements and understated yet powerful hooks. The lyrics are quite strong, particularly on Beneath The Balcony, The Night Descending and Jesus The Mexican Boy, though admittedly they can prove somewhat more bland on the title track and Someday The Waves, a problem that extends, to a degree, to those songs' melodies. This is a relative assessment, however, as all five tracks remain highly compelling, and while the quality fluctuates between them no song is anywhere near bereft of merit, as they uniformly feature enough hooks and intelligence to make them more than worthy of an attentive listen.
Beam's homebrewed approach, in addition to being necessary given his total lack of a budget or studio support, is by no means a novelty or cynical stratagem; rather, this lo-fi method of recording suits his material perfectly, not as a curiosity or attempt at something different but as the ideal course for facilitating his music and lyrics. The lack of a budget isn't orchestrated to elicit either bemused condescension or benign tolerance, instead serving as the optimal means toward perfecting his creations, as much of the subtle majesty and low-keyed charm of the music would likely be lost in the translation into the studio.
Thus The Sea & The Rhythm is precisely what one would hope for from an EP: high quality music condensed into a more compressed form. The music doesn't suffer, it simply doesn't last, and that's the EP's one and only flaw. The EP can be wholeheartedly recommended to any Iron & Wine fan, likewise succeeding on the more practical level of whetting the listener's appetite for future releases.
It goes without saying that when a rock artist makes the transition from homebrewed 4-tracks to a full studio environment the final product will reflect this new dynamic. This is a ritual of initiation that many erstwhile struggling artists go through upon being picked up by a major record label, be it when Guided By Voices made the jump from the lo-fi under-produced rock of Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and Under The Bushes Under The Stars to the glossy studio sheen and crystal clarity of Do The Collapse and Isolation Drills or when Ween graduated from the low budget aural nightmare of The Pod to the genre hopping slickness of Chocolate And Cheese.
While these were major milestones in the careers of those artists, these changes pale in comparison to Iron & Wine's segue into a full studio context. Given that The Creek Drank The Cradle was exclusively composed of Samuel Beam singing and strumming an acoustic guitar, the inevitable elevation of production values was bound to transfigure his classic fare into a completely different product altogether, and not the least of these changes was the evolution of Iron & Wine from a solo artist into a full-fledged rock group.
Thus the question arises as to whether this 'progression' is a positive or a negative; much of Iron & Wine's potency stemmed from Beam's striking, uber-minimalistic style, though admittedly the new 'band' dynamic does add new dimensions to Iron & Wine's sound.
Ergo the question is wholly a matter of preference, and I confess that, at least when it pertains to Our Endless Numbered Days, I'm partial toward Iron & Wine's original sound.
By nearly any standards Our Endless Numbered Days is quite a minimalistic album itself; it's merely when compared to the completely stripped down sound of The Creek Drank The Cradle that the album begins to sound over-produced. Thus Beam's first foray into studio production isn't a total betrayal of his old style, but rather a compromise of sorts, accepting the studio's need and his latent desires for more sophisticated arrangements while still preserving some of his classic minimalistic sound, seemingly a fair bargain wherein both sides make concessions to the other's preferences and musical agendas.
Nonetheless the haunting magic of Iron & Wine's spare style has been diluted (albeit not wholly lost), and I find myself pining for the minimalistic beauty that used to be effortlessly achieved through only the humblest of means. While Our Endless Numbered Days boasts a pleasant fuller sounds it simply fails to capture the subtle beauty that pervaded Beam's prior efforts; Iron & Wine used to explore sonic landscapes that few groups could navigate, and while still true to himself Beam's material on his sophomore outing sounds considerably less different and unique than his old acoustic compositions had.
Given this inability to recreate the beauty of classic Iron & Wine it's natural that it's the edgier material that tends to fare better on Our Endless Numbered Days. Thus highlights include such notable tracks as Cinder And Smoke, Teeth In The Grass and Free Until They Cut Me Down; this isn't to say that they sound better here than they would have on Beam's debut, simply that their sound is less subverted by the new fuller approach.
Given how much I've been lambasting Iron & Wine's new sound it may seem odd that it receives such a high rating. The fact of the matter, however, is that, while the new direction may aggravate me to an extent the new sound still sounds quite strong on its own terms, and, when isolated from Beam's original approach can be fully appreciated as an entertaining and viable substitute to the old formula.
Furthermore, the songwriting on Our Endless Numbered Days is as brilliant as it's ever been, resulting in a procession of catchy, moving and memorable numbers that are well suited to the new style. I'd likely prefer them if they adhered to the old style, but that doesn't change the fact that the fuller sound adroitly complements them as well, simply taking them in different yet likewise effective directions.
Thus Our Endless Numbered Days is a brilliant if frustrating album; it takes the band in what's most likely a necessary direction for their careers, and while I'm irked by it on a visceral level I'll concede that, in the long run, it may be for the best. Aside from the stylistic paradigm shift, which is largely a matter of personal taste, the album preserves everything that makes Beam such a gifted talent, and even if I'm not elated by their presence the other members acquit themselves quite admirably as well. While I'll miss the hyper-minimalism of days of old this doesn't prevent me from enjoying their new sound as well, and thus I have no problem acknowledging Our Endless Numbered Days as another excellent product.
While still tantamount to a sonic revolution for Iron & Wine, their sophomore effort, Our Endless Numbered Days, was, in many respects, deeply reminiscent of the band's prior output. While the album's pronounced reliance on studio wizardry and expanded arrangements took the group in radical new directions, from a songwriting standpoint the LP bore an acute resemblance to Iron & Wine's debut The Creek Drank The Cradle, merely filtered through the studio treatment that has become an inherent facet of Beam and company's sound.
The fact of the matter is that nearly any number culled from Our Endless Numbered Days could still work even if reinterpreted as a lo-fi anthem in the vein of the band's debut. None of the songs demand their more polished approach, and their newfound glossy sheen is never integral toward realizing the merit of any track, merely an embellishment as opposed to a necessity.
Thus Our Endless Numbered Days denoted a shift in style if not in substance, a new musical modality that merely extended to the presentation of the content while not the content itself. This is natural given that the album was Beam's first foray into the realm of studio trickery and existent budgets, a huge departure from his minimalistic homebrewed approach of old.
By 2005, however, Beam had become far more comfortable in the studio environment, and the EP Woman King is a testament to this newfound confidence, differentiating itself from its predecessor by offering six songs that not only benefit from the now standard more polished approach, but actually require it.
The songs on Woman King boast lush, full arrangements, an array of instruments deftly wielded by the band and backup singing that helps highlight some of Beam's best vocals to date. Rather than simply accentuating the songwriting these fuller arrangements compose the very hearts and structures of the songs, and could never have been replicated in the intimate environment in which Beam showcased his early work.
This isn't to say that this makes Woman King superior to Beam's haunting minimalistic soundscapes of old, but it does demonstrate very tangible growth on the considerably gifted frontman's part. It may not be the kind of growth that those pining for the stripped-down approach of The Creek Drank The Cradle were hoping for, but Beam has made it eminently clear that his ambitions lie in a more sonically expansive direction, and in this regard his growth is hardly a deleterious phenomenon.
While it's been established that the songs on Woman King are far more musically fleshed out than Iron & Wine's earliest fare, their quality has yet to be alluded to, and in this department Beam does not disappoint. The songwriting is, for the most part, topnotch, with only My Lady's House constituting something of a letdown (though only a minor one, and the track is still pretty in its own right, if a tad bland); the remaining numbers are uniformly excellent, from the gorgeous majesty of the title track to the visceral rush of Freedom Hangs Like Heaven.
Like The Sea & The Rhythm, Woman King's greatest liability is its brevity. If Beam had been able to sustain this level of quality for a whole album it would doubtless receive a higher grade, but as it stands it's simply a brilliant sampler of what Iron & Wine are capable of with their newfound mastery over a more sonically rich palette.
The group has accomplished a truly difficult feat, translating their frontman's exceptional facility for songwriting into a more aurally refined environment while still preserving the essence of Beam's vision. The heart of Beam's work remains intact at all times no matter how complex the arrangements or intricate the production become, and the result is a highly entertaining experience that demonstrates that Beam is truly committed to the style first pioneered on Our Endless Numbered Days. While this can be construed as the final nail in the coffin of his erstwhile lo-fi approach, one can at least derive solace from the fact that Iron & Wine will continue to get better and better at their chosen artistic direction, a fact that hardly merits worry or consternation.
Given that Iron & Wine's material has always, on a fundamental level, been the expression of Samuel Beam's vision, it's rather surprising that he would elect to sacrifice a degree of this control and bring in collaborators who are, in theory, given just as much authority over the construction of the music.
Nevertheless Beam and company entered into a partnership with the eclectic indie rock outfit Calexico, in the process assimilating myriad disparate elements from jazz overtones to blues aesthetics to the occasional southern flavor. Iron & Wine have never been known for their diversity, and as a result the incorporation of these influences has a huge impact on the sound of the album, rendering Calexico an important creative presence on the album despite the fact that Beam wrote every song by himself.
From the start it's clear that Calexico understand Iron & Wine quite well on a musical and structural level, conjuring instrumental passages that adroitly complement Beam's songwriting. Be it a jazzy horn section or an exotic string arrangement, Calexico evidently have a firm grasp on what will constitute a compelling instrumental hook at any point in a song, merging their vision with Iron & Wine's musical philosophy to help accentuate the immediate impact of any song.
Unfortunately, there's far more to Iron & Wine than musical hooks, and it becomes abundantly clear by the end of the album that no matter how well Calexico understand Beam's vision their understanding is on a purely superficial level. While an unexpected instrumental twist may raise a smile, an excess of incongruous musical elements, no matter how entertaining they may be, merely serve to dilute and compromise the emotional potency of a song.
While Beam's always been adept at crafting involving melodies with no paucity of engaging hooks, not to mention the fact that over time Iron & Wine's arrangements have grown increasingly complex and sophisticated, on the deepest level the band's songs have always served as vessels to convey Beam's emotions. The addition of Calexico, however, muddles the emotional import of Beam's work, ameliorating the music while impeding its greater purpose.
Iron & Wine, at their core, have always been about conjuring gorgeous melodies to a profound emotional effect, and the presence of an interloper in the group's output obstructs this fundamental dynamic, transfiguring the band's songs into entertaining but soulless phantoms.
This isn't always the case. The album's opener and best track, He Lays In The Reins, retains at least a modicum of emotional impact, but nevertheless the majority of the songs become far more generic and far less emotive thanks to Calexico's involvement.
This doesn't signify that the album is bad; on the contrary, it's quite enjoyable. In The Reins may not capture the emotional depth and moving character that's expected from the band, but Calexico's unorthodox arrangements can be quite intriguing, and they certainly deserve some credit for producing such an engaging product. Calexico should not be vilified for their performance here, as for the most part they succeed in their endeavor, which is simply to integrate diverse and imaginative elements into Iron & Wine's established formula. This comes at a cost, as the album certainly loses something thanks to this eccentric marriage, but in the long run this should have been expected; In The Reins is not simply Beam's vision, ergo there's no reason that it should operate as if it were. Since Beam isn't in the driver's seat he can hardly be expected to control the music like he always has, and without this level of dominance it's impossible for him to convey his feelings in his customary manner.
Thus In The Reins is an enjoyable if frustrating listen. Listeners anticipating another Iron & Wine album will be disappointed, but without these preconceived notions of what constitutes the sound and spirit of the band one will find an idiosyncratic and compelling experience. This isn't an Iron & Wine album, but it doesn't profess to be, ergo judging it on those terms is simply unfair. The album works on its own terms, and that's all that can be asked from it in the long run.
It's always difficult to assign a precise grade to a work of profound brevity, and Such Great Heights, labeled an EP but in actuality little more than a glorified single, is no exception to this rule. At a mere three songs long and bereft of lengthy runtimes the disc is over in a flash, preventing it from reaching the 'great heights' alluded to in the title, but at the same time each track certainly more than registers, a trio of memorable experiences that will stay with you long after the CD's over, thus ensuring that the EP has more value than one would expect from such a diminutive release.
The song from which the EP derives its title is indeed a cover of the Postal Service track of the same name, certainly an unpredictable career decision but one that works far better than one would imagine. The song manages to make the transition from poppy electronica to minimalistic balladry with its charm intact, as Beam deftly transfigures a catchy radio-friendly single into a gorgeous, resonant anthem boasting a level of earnestness and sincerity that could never have been captured in the supergroup's slick, frenetic product (nor should it have been, as the two versions have vastly different purposes).
The subsequent track is the one new Beam-penned composition on the EP, a beautiful, elegantly understated ballad called Trapeze Swinger, and is followed by a stripped down version of Our Endless Numbered Days' Naked As We Came, which is just as gorgeous and powerful as its more polished studio incarnation.
This emphasizes the EP's greatest asset. Due to Such Great Heights' status as an obscure EP Beam isn't obligated to adhere to the new studio protocol for his works and is thus free to make a minimalistic, pared-down product in the vein of The Creek Drank The Cradle. Each song merely consists of Beam and his acoustic, rendering it the return to his old style that many fans have been craving for years.
Admittedly this can also be seen as a way of toying with the brand of Iron & Wine fanatics who praise Beam's debut above all else, as it only offers this experience for a mere three tracks, but even so it's still three tracks that are well worth cherishing. Beam is to be commended for even attempting such a stunt, as it could alienate the new fanbase he's cultivated over the course of the more mainstream chapter of his career, a risk he nevertheless takes by releasing such an anachronistic offering.
Thus Such Great Heights is a profoundly enjoyable experience; at such a short length, however, it isn't a must-own for anyone save hardcore Iron & Wine fans, particularly those who fell in love with the band through Beam's early stripped down efforts, and while most of them would prefer a whole album in Beam's original style, for now they'll have to be content with this brief but worthwhile document. These fans, however, will likely have a difficult time explaining the value of a short EP that only consists of a surreal cover, an alternate version of a song that was beautiful to begin with and only one new track to more casual listeners who don't go into fits of ecstasy at the thought of Beam without a backing band.
In many respects The Shepherd's Dog is the album that Samuel Beam has been trying to make ever since he eschewed the homebrewed minimalistic approach of The Creek Drank The Cradle in favor of more polished, band-oriented fare.
On Our Endless Numbered Days Beam had yet to adapt his songwriting to the glossier production and expansive arrangements that typify contemporary studio releases, and while his performance on Woman King demonstrated a newfound grasp of such elements it was far too short to constitute the modern masterpiece that Beam was clearly attempting to fashion out of the disparate, seemingly incompatible styles he was struggling to merge.
On The Shepherd's Dog, however, Beam is able to reconcile his often contradictory artistic leanings for the duration of a full album, and the resultant product is his strongest release since The Creek Drank The Cradle. The album depicts a marriage of latent minimalistic tendencies, fuller arrangements and rich instrumentation, along with Beam's usual intelligent lyrics and gorgeous vocals. The songwriting is impeccable, and Beam proves himself capable of embracing his new style without sacrificing the elements that made him such a unique and gifted artist in the first place.
Highlights abound on the album, from the moody and unsettling White Tooth Man to the spare, beautiful Carousel to the subtle menace of Wolves (Song Of The Shepherd's Dog) to The Devil Never Sleeps, one of the few songs in Iron & Wine's canon that actually rocks (without ever betraying the group's identity, no less). There's little that could be branded filler, and each song manages to bring something new and different to the table, rendering the album the most diverse entry in the band's catalogue (not counting the somewhat more forced and inorganic variety of genres tackles during the Calexico collaboration In The Reins).
Those not partial to Iron & Wine's early minimalism will doubtless regard The Shepherd's Dog as the band's finest outing, and there's ample evidence to support such effusive praise. The album marks the pinnacle of Iron & Wine as a group as opposed to an individual, with stellar melodies, passages that border on catharsis and an innate intelligence and grace that inform every second of the CD.
Nevertheless I still prefer the stripped down glory of Beam's debut with its penetrating, finely honed minimalism and intimate, sparse arrangements. The Shepherd's Dog displays the closest the band will ever come to duplicating that dynamic in a more studio-friendly style, but it still can't hope to capture the full extent of The Creek Drank The Cradle's understated power.
Thus The Shepherd's Dog is an excellent effort from one of the premier indie rock outfits of the new millennium. Iron & Wine appear to have taken their new style as far as it will go, so it should be interesting to see where the group will go from here. Even if the band's doesn't undergo any kind of artistic reinvention, however, I would hardly object to more albums of this caliber, as Beam and company have produced a moving and refined experience, striking an elegant balance between lo-fi solo acoustic strumming and overproduced, clinically sterile studio treatments.
There's a certain line of thought that a band has to 'earn' the right to release a rarities collection, a mentality that only after years of arduous musical labor and high double-digit discographies can a rock group merit a compendium of their unreleased material.
While this seems, on a fundamental level, to be specious reasoning, a kind of musical elitism, there is a degree of common sense to it as well. After all, in order to have enough quality rarities to sustain an entire compilation, one would surmise that a group would have had to have been active for quite some time, or else the collection would suffer from a paucity of worthwhile content.
Around The Well, however, will put these arguments to rest, as after a relatively short career Iron & Wine have produced a two disc collection of high quality rarities, a set that's virtually bereft of filler or misfires.
This album is clearly bifurcated into two halves, with each disc representing a different period in the band's development. As expected, the first half consists of Beam's stripped down solo compositions. It's well known amongst Iron & Wine's loyal fanbase that the sessions that bred the seminal masterpiece The Creek Drank The Cradle yielded quite a surplus, but no one could have anticipated the uniformly high caliber of this unreleased material. It's a travesty that this brilliant content was unavailable until now, but thankfully this oversight has been remedied, resulting in a stunning revisiting of what may very well have been the zenith of Beam's creative powers.
The latter disc in no slouch either, delivering a plethora of strong tracks courtesy of Iron & Wine the group as opposed to Iron & Wine the artist. Once more it's mystifying that such high quality output had hitherto been unreleased, and this disc makes for an eminently worthy foil for Beam's early work.
Beyond the sheer enjoyment that such brilliant tracks have to offer, Around The Well also provides an excellent portrait of Iron & Wine as a whole, adroitly charting the history and development of this decidedly esoteric folk-rock outfit.
The album elegantly illustrates the profound dichotomy between a solitary man strumming an acoustic guitar and a full-fledged band performing intricate, multifaceted arrangements. More importantly, however, Around The Well offers a clear depiction of how this transition was effected, bridging the gap between the different incarnations and permutations of an ever developing rock group.
Thus Around The Well can function as a microcosm of Iron & Wine's progression over the years, portraying the band's evolution from The Creek Drank The Cradle to The Shepherd's Dog while clearly demonstrating that the two main periods of the band's history are by no means incompatible. By clearly showcasing each era, the album paints a vivid picture of precisely how Iron & Wine have changed over the years, and what the group has gained and lost in the process.
Accordingly, it becomes clear that by no means was the core sound of the band ever modified or perverted. While Beam, quite intentionally, sacrificed the intimacy of The Creek Drank The Cradle's homebrewed approach, he made sure that his compositions retained the low-keyed minimalism and understated intelligence that was a vital, inherent asset of his early work.
From this perspective, it's clear that albums like Our Endless Numbered Days are organic, natural extensions of Iron & Wine's early stages, never constituting a betrayal of the band's musical identity. This reality is eloquently conveyed on Around The Well through songs like Arms Of A Thief, a track that, while deeply experimental and far removed from the band's classic period, still faithfully preserves the spirit of Iron & Wine with its spare arrangements and moody atmosphere.
Around The Well also presents Beam's affinity for unexpected covers, culling inspiration from the likes of Stereolab, The Postal Service and The Flaming Lips. One would have assumed that transfiguring Waitin' For A Superman into a heart-wrenching ballad would be an exercise in futility, but Sam Beam manages this feat nonetheless, making the song his own in much the same way that he had subverted Such Great Heights on an early EP (the track reappears on Around The Well, the sole redundancy on the album's set-list).
Most importantly, Around The Well offers myriad stellar compositions, from the haunting, tenebrous No Moon to the dark yet catchy Serpent Charmer to the heartbreaking The Trapeze Swinger (thankfully a different rendition from the previously available version).
These tracks are all representatives of disc two, as disc one is, as is to be expected from the spiritual sequel to The Creek Drank The Cradle, incredibly consistent, making it difficult for any individual track to stand out as superior to the others. Nevertheless songs like Hickory and Swans And The Swimming certainly bear mentioning, as do the aforementioned covers which never come across as mere novelties or incongruous anomalies.
Thus Around The Well is an excellent collection that's absolutely indispensable for any fan of Iron & Wine, be it their early or late period. The album feels far more cohesive than most rarities collections, and it's truly fascinating to study the growth and development of the band over the course of a single release. One needn't even be concerned with these history lessons, however, as Around The Well can simply be enjoyed as a strong album filled with high quality tracks, making it a product that doesn't disappoint no matter which way it's approached.
Kiss Each Other Clean is not an album that Sam Beam could have made at an earlier stage in his career. This isn't a reflection of his abilities, nor does it denote artistic progression. Instead, it's merely a matter of practicality, as this is the first time in the brief history of Iron & Wine that Beam has had the budget and studio backing to craft a work with such complex arrangements and lavish production values.
This begs the question: is Kiss Each Other Clean the album that Sam Beam has always wanted to make? While his early minimalist work was truly mesmerizing, it was also stripped down by force of necessity. Beam recorded The Creek Drank The Cradle with nothing save his acoustic guitar and vocals, and as haunting as this spare arrangement is the reality is that he had no alternative. Thanks to budget constraints Beam had no other resources at his disposal, and at the time the studio wizardry and backup musicians featured on Kiss Each Other Clean would have doubtless been unimaginable.
So one must ask: if Beam had been equipped with the financial means and technical know-how that characterize Kiss Each Other Clean at the beginning of his career, would he have eschewed his graceful minimalism in favor of a slick studio sheen? One must ask not only 'was Kiss Each Other Clean the album that Beam always wanted to make?' but moreover 'was The Creek Drank The Cradle not an album he wanted to make at all?'
It's hard to imagine that an album as brilliant as Iron & Wine's debut was a compromise, but such may well be the case. Regardless, whether Beam wanted to make it or not, it's clear that he never wants to make it again. Studio backing ushered in a new era for Iron & Wine, and each successive album has been a further departure from the elegant minimalism that informed The Creek Drank The Cradle.
Kiss Each Other Clean, from a purely technical perspective, is Beam's most ambitious project to date. A plethora of session musicians fill the empty spaces that were once empty for a reason, while the production is as immaculate as one would expect from an album in this day and age.
Saxophones and keyboards dot a lush soundscape, while distorted guitars mingle with Beam's trusty acoustic in what would feel like a betrayal were it not so deftly handled. A few tracks actually rock, continuing a trend started on The Shepherd's Dog. Somehow Beam not only makes this work, but also makes it seem like a natural step in the evolution of his group.
What matters in the end is the caliber of Beam's songwriting, and as usual he doesn't disappoint. Tracks like Tree By The River and Brother In Love might seem a bit bland and prosaic were they not so utterly beautiful. As always Beam invests time and craftsmanship in even his most by-the-numbers affairs. By coupling intricate arrangements and enchanting vocals, he ends up with a formula guaranteed to make even the slightest of songs feel rich and rewarding.
Thus the album's top-tier songs are truly extraordinary. Monkeys Uptown is moody and menacing, with a rare bit of profanity from the customarily reserved Beam. Rabbit Will Run is atmospheric and hypnotic, with some of the most haunting lyrics on the album. The jazzy Big Burned Hand is something of a departure from the status quo of the LP, with an infectious groove that complements its slyly sardonic verses.
Perhaps the best track, however, is the closer Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me. The song boasts a superb melody with plenty of terrific vocal hooks from Beam and a typically dark delivery, making for yet another Iron & Wine classic. The track, however, is taken to yet a higher level by its incredible coda, which is not only catchy but also emotionally powerful as well.
It's impossible to ascertain whether these elaborate arrangements and slick studio flourishes are what Beam always wanted. If they are, then I'm thankful that they came to him so late in his career, as I adore his minimalist work and am grateful that I've had the chance to listen to it. Regardless, however, Kiss Each Other Clean is an excellent album in its own right, and by no means a bad or misguided direction for the band to go in. Both the minimalist and polished sides of Iron & Wine are equally valid, and should be appreciated on their own terms.