Iron and Wine’s Guiding Light
With minimal fanfare and seemingly less forethought, Sam Beam has led Iron and Wine down a fascinating path over the past five years, bolstering his haunting solo work and lyricism with equally compelling instrumental experimentation. Now a Texas resident, the Florida native has created a wondrous new record with The Shepherd’s Dog — a rare blend of heady wordplay and sophisticated, lushly arranged folk that stands apart from the impressively exploratory Iron and Wine discography."Honestly, it didn’t start any differently than the older songs; it’s still just me, a guitar, and a notebook,” Beam says modestly. "At the same time I don’t like putting out the same record over and over again — or twice — so I was definitely trying to push myself. With this collection of songs, there’s just an underlying unrest to them, so I tried to reflect that in the instrumentation and arrangements, as well.”
After gaining a loyal following and then interest from Sub Pop, Beam’s sparse, solitary work showcased his captivating, wispy voice on the 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle. Iron and Wine was soon infiltrated by subtly rendered harmonies and percussion on 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days and Beam’s taste for eclectic sounds was even more pronounced the following year, both on the stirring Woman King EP and the subsequent collaboration with Calexico that fostered the critically acclaimed album, In the Reins. Beam believes his work with Calexico really opened him up to the idea of musical interplay within his own songs.
"It wasn’t that I was resistant to working with other people in the past, it was just that I didn’t really have much of an opportunity. I was just doing this as a hobby, in my spare time, when I wasn’t at a ‘real job,’” he laughs. "I learned how to leave space in arrangements for people to improvise and put their own stamp on the arrangement you’ve started; it was very beneficial.”Different instruments and players have been added to Iron and Wine with the same refined attention to detail found in Beam’s earliest compositions, which contain relatively spare, acoustic accompaniment. With graceful flashes of sitar, strings, and warm percussion, he has notably avoided the trap of transitional solo artists, where their introspective mode is artificially amped up by rock’n’roll treatments of past songs.
"I just kind of approach it intuitively,” Beam says. "I built a home studio so I definitely had the benefit of being able to work and then walk away and reflect, listen, react, and change and augment things. I knew the songs warranted a busier sound but, as far as specifics, we just kind of took each song as it came and tried a bunch of different things. Like I said, it’s pretty intuitive.”
Beam certainly has great instincts, and friends from Califone and Calexico as well as noted jazz improvisers like Matt Lux and Rob Burger add much to The Shepherd’s Dog — the most seamless and artfully mysterious collection of Iron and Wine songs yet. "I do think these are a bit more social in nature, rather than personal like some of the older records and that ties them together,” Beam admits. "I actually had the sequence worked out [beforehand] and we were able to record some connecting material, where one song bleeds into another. We’d just keep playing and change chords and modulate into the other songs. So, I think that gives it more of a cohesive feel; just the simple fact that they’re connected musically insinuates that they mean something,” he chuckles. "It’s a trick.”
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