Folksinger folds in more noise, edges further from bare-bones debut
Sometimes it seems impossible for an artist to rebound from a beloved acoustic LP—something about tiny guitar strums and mumbled vocals seems to invite intense, unflinching loyalty. Almost everyone who cherishes Pink Moon ?nds Nick Drake’s other records in?nitely less beguiling, the folks who adore Springsteen’s Nebraska rarely hear redemption in Born in the U.S.A., and there are throngs of people who still haven’t forgiven Ryan Adams for repeatedly failing to reproduce Heartbreaker. Just look at how much trouble Bob Dylan got in for wailing electric at Newport: He broke poor Pete Seeger’s heart!
In September 2002, Iron and Wine—the alias of then-Miami-based folksinger Sam Beam—released The Creek Drank the Cradle, a warm, whispered collection of undressed folksongs; Beam murmured tiny, self-skewering love poems over bits of acoustic guitar and banjo, his voice barely rising above a controlled coo (legend has it that Beam—who recorded the entire record on a four-track in his basement—didn’t want to wake up his sleeping daughters). The Creek Drank the Cradle featured only Beam, singing and playing in his own home, and felt intimate, secretive and confessional. When the tapes made their way to Sub Pop, the label opted to release them as-is, with Beam credited as sole producer, writer and performer.
Beam followed Creek with The Sea & the Rhythm EP, ?ve previously unreleased tracks from the same sessions that produced his debut. In 2004, a proper follow-up appeared: Our Endless Numbered Days boasted a full band and a professional producer (the Chicago-based Brian Deck, former drummer for Red Red Meat and occasional member of Califone, who has also worked with Fruit Bats, Modest Mouse and Holopaw, among others). While still largely acoustic, Our Endless Numbered Days was richer, bigger and undeniably more ambitious. In 2005, six-song EP Woman King further showcased Beam’s shifting aesthetic; rather than furrowing his brow and sighing into his microphone, Beam pried open his heavily-bearded mouth and sang, bellowing and mewling over—of all things!—an electric guitar. Considerably more raucous than his previous releases (although still riddled with perfect little melodies and striking lyrics), Woman King seemed like a logical stepping stone: Beam was clearly tiptoeing away from the trappings of his debut and moving toward a fuller, more dynamic sound.
The Shepherd’s Dog, Iron and Wine’s third full-length, functions in much the same way: Teaming again with his touring band (including sister Sarah on backing vocals) and Deck, Beam has managed to tweak and in?ate his signature sound without sacri?cing any of its considerable charm.
Beam is Carolina-born, recorded his debut in South Florida and, at present, resides in Texas. Given his proclivity for hot, sticky living, it’s not particularly surprising that Beam’s narrative sensibility is so perfectly Southern. Beam’s lyrics are rife with dark, gothic overtones, and only a Southern writer could manage to juxtapose so much splendor with so much sorrow. Accordingly, The Shepherd’s Dog is crammed full of classic Beam motifs: grass, snakes, teeth, babies, crosses, girls, ashes, blooming ?owers, broken bones, ghosts, mistakes, death. Musically, Beam’s tendency toward repeated pentatonic-minor riffs (think Mississippi Hill Country blues) is also intact, and these tracks are every bit as dizzily mesmerizing as his earlier work, if not more so.
The most perceptible sonic shift is in the record’s vocals, which are doubled-up here and, occasionally, so soaked with studio effects that it’s tricky to discern whole words. Beam’s voice lurks, fuzzy and thick, behind busier instrumentation; for the ?rst time, language is subservient to sound. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Beam admits to ?nding “spiritual inspiration” in Tom Waits’ 1983 opus Sword?shtrombones, and while The Shepherd’s Dog never mimics Waits’ famed chainsaw-in-a-trashcan aesthetic, it’s not difficult to hear what Beam is getting at: The Shepherd’s Dog is noisier, more layered, less comfortable and less linear than anything Iron and Wine has released to date.
The album opens with a few seconds of muted strumming before Beam and company launch “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car” with a burst of loud acoustic guitar. Muddy and upbeat, the song swings and shifts until you ?nd yourself irrationally craving a bonfire to dance around, barefoot and giddy, tossing your hands in the air and kicking up as much sand as possible. “Carousel” sees Beam’s pipes soaked in vocoder, gurgly and wet, like he’s singing from deep inside a ?sh tank; the track fades in a haze of electronic honks and wheezes, bleeding into the blip-heavy “House by the Sea,” a cacophonous stomper riddled with bits of organic and inorganic sound (a classic Brian Deck studio marriage). “Boy with a Coin” is the record’s ?rst proper single, an otherworldly mess of guitar, slightly distorted vocals and tip-tap percussion.
“Resurrection Fern” is probably the most familiar (and arresting) track on the record, comprised only of guitar, shaker, wisps of pedal steel and Beam’s breathy warble, temporarily back on top. As any proper Southerner knows, actual resurrection ferns (which attach themselves to Cypress and Live Oak trees, pulling up water and nutrients that collect on bark) are remarkable little plants: The fern earned its name from its (heartbreakingly poetic) ability to wither and appear dead in times of draught, curling in on itself, brittle, brown, small—until water appears and it unfurls, green, vibrant, alive. Botanists have long posited that resurrection ferns could go for decades (maybe even centuries) without water, only to return to form at the ?rst sign of moisture. Beam has never shied from pumping his work full of natural imagery, and with good reason: consider the fern’s life cycle, and try not choking up a bit when he sings, “And that fallen house, across the way, it’ll keep everything—the baby’s breath, our bravery wasted and our shame.”
Sam Beam is one of the most vital new American folksingers recording today, and The Shepherd’s Dog is a brave shift away from the unembellished minimalism of his debut. Some may crucify Beam for ditching the nakedness of his earlier work, but his latest effort is just as vulnerable (and just as lovely), teeming with delicate metaphors, gut-churning guitars and moments of perfect clarity. Because as centuries of grand American songwriters can attest, there’s more than one way to sing a folksong.