Graham Reid | | 2 min read
The previous album The Shepherd's Dog by Texas' Iron and Wine (Sam Beam) was fully three years ago and was one of the Best of Elsewhere 2007 albums. So anticipation is high for this -- although might have been higher a year ago, but I guess he works at his own pace.
And we forgive him because he delivered the excellent Around the Well collection of unreleased song and rarities in mid '09.
Beam's music and directions are hard to define: labels like folkadelic, alt.anything, prog-country, experimentally deconstructed alt.rock or whatever only partially explain him -- but in truth don't explain anything at all. And that is a large measure of his appeal.
At times here he can layer vocals like some rural Beach Boys, will drag in gentle sonic distortion or a guitar passage which edges towards post-rock or psychedelia, and delivers lyrics which can sometimes be insightful and at others just plain baffling.
The opener here Walking Far From Home sounds like an itinerant poet cataloguing what he has seen in his America and the world of his imagination ("I saw children in a river but their lips were still dry/I saw a boatful of believers/I saw sunlight on the water/I saw flowers on a hillside and a millioniare pissing on a lawn/I saw a car-crash in the country . . ."
And this litany of dislocated images is peppered with hope and subtle religiosity. It isn't the most persuasive opener -- especially if he is new to you -- but as a statement of intent it sets you up for what follows: in the following song he's with Lazarus shoveling ashes over an angular beat and electro-bleeps (and an r'n'b sax part) then on Tree by the River he offers a pretty folk-pop ballad which has backing vocals as uplifting as the aforementioned Beach Boys' early songs.
And there is quite a dollop of pop going on here: alt.pop, funk-lite.pop (Monkeys Uptown with its Afro-styled vibraphone colouring, which returns in the chipping Rabbit Will Run) and blues.pop (Half Moon) to be sure -- but these are song with hooks and that increasingly lovely voice has settled into itself with confidence. He throws in some Wings-like backing vocals and guitar parts on Half Moon.
This is very subtle and layered music -- Godless Brother in Love is the most elegantly simple here and a standout -- with sonic shades being added just enough to entice the ear but not distract from the heart of the melody.
But there are a couple of lesser moments: Big Burned Hand sounds like a jazz-funk throwaway and is the least of things, and the seven minutes-plus closer Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me is akin to an Afrobeat-lite middle period-Split Enz in places which has none of the emotional drive of the former or the oddball charm of the latter. The repeated coda ("we will become the blossom and the wilt, we will become the target and the gun . . .") however -- as long as that in Hey Jude -- is of elevating spiritual import and almost claustrophobic intensity.
Helluva finish to an album that takes you on some fascinating journeys, and if it isn't quite the equal of The Shepherd's Dog, for most of the 10 tracks it runs a very close second.
Like the sound of this? Then consider, the producer here is Brian Deck who did the knob-twiddling for the excellent and equally diverse Josh Ritter album The Animal Years which was a best of Elsewhere in '06. Check that out.
FOR OTHER 'BEST OF ELSEWHERE 2011' ALBUMS GO HERE.