Thursday, May 21, 2009

An Alternative History

Iron and Wine - Around The Well (Sub Pop Compilation, 2009)

I've been quite vocal in my admiration for the songwriting of Sam Beam many times on this blog. It's testament to his talent and to my argument for him to be seen as a major artist, that this rarities collection makes for such absorbing listening. Whilst it's easy to accept 'Around The Well' as it has been presented - an 'odds and sods' compilation of B-sides, EP tracks, soundtrack contributions and covers - it actually offers a good deal more when digested as a whole. Running to two discs in length and sequenced chronologically, it provides us with an alternative history of Iron and Wine, from Beam's earliest scratchy home recordings to his creative apogee thus far in 'The Trapeze Swinger'.

The first CD is soft and delicate. Beam is the most unshowy of performers - his guitar playing light and airy, offering only the barest of accompaniment, his voice at its most whispered and understated. Listening to these songs in one sitting is a little more challenging than digesting his later, more realised material. Many of these songs feel like sketches for more ambitious writing to come. Yet the seeds of Beam's gentle command are already apparent. His melodies are often simple and repetitive (in that lingering, quietly reflective way), whilst his music is a Southern Gothic refashioning of the blues. His great success is creating a music that is steeped in the American folk tradition, whilst also developing his own unique voice.

Much of that individuality comes from his language. Whilst songwriters are frequently labeled as poets, few are compared with the great American novelists. Sam Beam has a good deal more in common with William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy than he does with Bob Dylan. There's a combination of the sacred and the earthy that characterises the best writers ('I'll put my trust in the saviour/The fuming forces of nature') and a deep understanding that emotion can often be best expressed not through melodrama, but through direct storytelling.

His descriptions are vivid and allusive ('The money came and she died in her rocking chair/A letter locked in the pattern of her knuckles/Like a hymn to the house she was making'). As a result, his songs are imbued with a deep melancholy, sometimes even a resonant sadness, that is profoundly moving. His songs are also rich in mystery, filled with uncertain characters and insecure voices. Interpreting them is rarely a straightforward task and sometimes just basking in the flow of the words is enough ('how the rain sounds as loud as a lover's words'). On the plaintive 'Call Your Boys', which hints most clearly at the treasures to come, he seems to be dealing with the deeply personal subjects of family, ancestry and legacy, topics rarely addressed in modern songs.

His choice of covers is also assured. Even when delivering songs that do not rely on his flighty vocabulary, his style is consistent and engaging. Stereolab's 'Peng! 33' is rendered reflective rather than playful. His take on The Flaming Lips' 'Waitin' For A Superman' is so calm and unexpressive as to initially seem as if he has stripped the song of Wayne Coyne's sincerity. In fact, he has transformed it into a quiet, mournful hymn. Best of all though is his majestic version of 'Such Great Heights'. In the hands of the Postal Service, this was a chirpy, infectious piece of electronica. Beam has made it a touching folk ballad. Simply by slowing it down slightly and swinging the vocal phrasing, he radically alters the mood of the song.

The second CD begins with cleaner production values on the lovely 'Communion Cups and Someone's Coat'. By this stage, Beam's ambition to expand his reach is already apace. The dusty, charming 'Belated Promise Ring' introduces brushed drums, honky tonk piano and upright bass but this is Beam at his most traditional. 'God Made The Automobile' is deceptively lightweight (a nod to Springsteen perhaps in its cars and girls subject matter) but it's looped backing vocals seem like some sort of precursor to 'The Trapeze Swinger'. It also has one of Beam's most touching melodies.

The songs get progressively stranger and more intriguing from this point onwards. The catalyst for Beam's later hybrid sound appears to have been his massively fruitful collaboration with Calexico. It's a shame that there don't seem to have been any outtakes from 'In The Reins' held back for this set. By the time we reach 'Carried Home', his dark gothic blues is fully realised. 'Kingdom of the Animals' is more peculiar still, with the hints of dub and Afro-Caribbean rhythms that made 'The Shepherd's Dog' his most idiosyncratic and exciting album. There are some fantastic lines in this one two - its two lovers 'sweating wild and weird in our sunday clothes' - in their eyes 'an angel clear and coronal/Clothed in all that's prodigal and strange'.

He saves the very best for last here though. I've written a great deal about 'The Trapeze Swinger' in an earlier post, but it remains a song that demands close attention with every listen. The structure is simple - four chords and a very simple melody repeated over and over again for nine and a half minutes. Yet the song has a remarkable emotional force - its words so strange and involving, its sense of memory and loss so clear and compelling. The musical key to its success is the subtle variations in texture that go on beneath the vocals - how one instrument will become prominent and then settle into the background again. Yet when Beam performs it live entirely alone, it seems to work just as well. It's far too good a song to be left buried on the soundtrack of an inferior American movie - a masterpiece in fact - and it's great that it has a new and wonderful home here.

Beam's songs often need time to cast their spell. They are not easily digestible and there is a clear need to pay close attention to his words and the subtle shifts in his music. He hasn't quite made a classic album yet, but there is plenty of evidence here to suggest it is not too far away. For the time being, this collection provides plenty of insight, wisdom and imagination.

1 comment:

Demob Happy said...

Thanks Daniel, i'll check this out. Shepherd's Dog - a classic in my book - is one of the albums i've returned to most over the last few years.