Monday, September 24, 2007

Tending To The Flock

Iron and Wine - The Shepherd's Dog

Perhaps I’ve waxed lyrical about Iron and Wine more than enough on these pages already but I can’t help feeling that ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’ deserves special attention as the first Iron and Wine album to explore the full possibilities of an ensemble sound. Most likely inspired by the outstanding collaboration with Calexico from a couple of years ago (indeed, Joey Burns and Paul Niehaus from that wonderful group both appear here), Sam Beam has now delivered rich and inventive arrangements to match his deeply compelling songs.

Lyrically, Beam continues to look like a true original and a master of language. His images are at once elusive and pure (‘love was a promise made of smoke in a frozen copse of trees’) and he has a peculiar knack for unusual juxtapositions (‘Cain got a milk eyed mule from the auction, Abel got a telephone’ or ‘springtime and the promise of an open fist’). Somehow, these words always seem to flow softly and elegantly (no doubt Beam’s beautifully understated delivery helps in this regard) and always evoke feelings rather than obscuring them.

Those who, like me, deeply admire Beam’s talent for composing ballads in the true sense of the term – long, storytelling songs with languid melodies – may be disappointed that his masterful song ‘The Trapeze Swinger’ is rarely used as a template here. There is the gorgeous ‘Resurrection Fern’, which closely resembles that song, albeit in far more concise form. Its chorus is almost unspeakably beautiful (‘we’ll undress beside the ashes of the fire/both our tender bellies wrapped around in bailing wire/all the more an underwater pearl than the oak tree and its resurrection fern’), bolstered by Paul Niehaus’ subtle but stirring pedal steel. The closing ‘Flightless Bird, American Mouth’ also has something of a soulful lilt to it, and is characteristically tender and affecting.

For most of ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’, though, Beam explores the more rhythmically driven, bluesy aspects of his work, to increasingly powerful effect. I think I credited Beam with pioneering something approaching an ‘American folk minimalism. This felt like a neat categorisation at the time but now seems hopelessly inadequate. ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’ is Beam’s most brazenly percussive work to date, both in terms of its deployment of a range of percussion instruments (but never a conventional drum kit) and in the style of guitar playing Beam deploys throughout. As a result, ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’ achieves much in retracing some of the lost connections between Appalachian blues and African desert music. ‘House By The Sea’ sounds closer to Ali Farka Toure than Bob Dylan (albeit with a hint of Roger McGuinn in the guitar solos), and there are echoes of the repetitive, hypnotic grooves of the Touareg masters Tinariwen, particularly on ‘Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)’ or first single ‘Boy With A Coin’.

Somehow I hadn’t quite latched on to just how many of these songs Beam performed at his special show at the Spitz a couple of months ago. As a result many of the melodies and lyrical ideas already seem recognisable, but the overall sound of the record is somewhat unexpected and fascinating. This makes for an enchanting combination of distance and familiarity. There are all manner of sounds that seem alien to the trademark Iron and Wine sound – cello, soulful Wurlitzer, scratchy guitars, the delightful honky tonk piano on ‘The Devil Never Sleeps’, perhaps what might even be the odd intervention of electronics. The deep connection with the blues is still at the heart of this music, but the feel is now less rustic and more elastic.

Beam is an extraordinary songwriter capable of vivid, dreamlike songs that conjure their own weird combination of romanticism and danger. He would still be a significant artist even were he content to continue simply as an acoustic troubadour. That he has found new contexts for his elegiac words and melodies makes hiw work all the more expressive and powerful.

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