Diversions


Music Review: Iron and Wine by uncdiversions
May 27, 2009, 6:27 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Iron and Wine

Around the Well

(Sub Pop)

Like that cookie you bite into with a warm, gooey center taken from the oven before it’s truly through baking, there is often an appeal in enjoying things before they have been completed. And this is often the joy in odds-and-sods rarities collections. They allow listeners to hear what their favorite artists’ music sounds like before it is actually finished, what they sound like in the middle of the process.

By this definition, Around the Well could actually be considered a failure. Filled with songs that for the most part come off as well-polished studio pieces that, even if they haven’t been released before, seem like they were made with that eventuality in mind.

But the fact that the first B-sides and rarities collection from Sam Beam, the smoky, falsetto-voiced folk singer behind the Iron and Wine name, is filled with proper songs instead of thrown away demos makes it a consistently enjoyable listen that is accessible to both casual listeners and diehard fans.

Around the Well is separated into two very different discs. The first contains the stripped down arrangements of Beam’s early career, and the second cuts loose with the experimentally expressive full-band arrangements much akin to Beam’s collaborations with Calexico and his excellent 2007 album The Sheppard’s Dog.

It’s the first of these that most feels like a rarities collection as it contains a few dusty, rough examples of Beam’s very first songs. And while most of these songs are only moderately enjoyable, with bland arrangements and a stripped down version of the singer’s now lush, colorful songwriting, a couple are true gems.

Thanks to a tear-filled arrangement of prickly acoustic and slide guitar and devastating lyrics such as, “‘There’s no way to grow that don’t hurt,'”/She growled from the station and hung up the phone,” “Sacred Vision,” is a heartbreaking plea for a lost lover’s return. And as it’s also one of the first songs Beam ever wrote, it reveals that his pristine songwriting chops were there from the beginning.

But it’s on the second disc that Beam really shows you what he can do. Making full use of evocative, genre-bending arrangements, the best of these songs display his elliptical, image-filled writing at the peak of its powers.

“God Made the Automobile” sets its title premise over glistening harmonies and a wheezing dobro as Beam ably drives his maker’s gift past a world that will never reveal all its truths, while “Arms of a Thief” combines insolating sound effects and a creeping keyboard part into a paranoid shuffle as Beam pictures a broken woman with such expressive imagery as “Like the water when the see got rough/She was bored of the breeze, she was bored of her love.”

But the best song here is “The Trapeze Singer,” the nine-minute epic that closes out the collection. Over a beautiful and largely traditional folk arrangement backed by ethereal female harmonies, Beam wraps his vision of the afterlife and the way he’d like a lost love to remember him up in the title metaphor. Every word here is among the most profound he has yet written, as Beam continually rattles off such quotables as “The pearly gates have some elegant graffiti/Like ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘F-k The Man’/and ‘Tell My Mother Not To Worry.'”

And though most all of these songs have been heard before, most who encounter it will have only listened to a few. So for them, while this record might not be the equivalent of that richly unfinished cookie, this crunchy bit of well-baked songwriting has enough great chips to allow it to stand right beside Beam’s proper releases.

– By Diversions Editor Jordan Lawrence

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