Oct 042007

Iron & Wine, The Shepherd’s Dog

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Artist: Iron & Wine
Album: The Shepherd’s Dog
Label: Sub Pop
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.9.25
Score: 10/10

Sam Beam, purveyor of American-Gothic Folk is at it again and his latest LP, The Shepherd’s Dog, definitely delivers on the promise made by his earlier work. Which isn’t to say his previous releases weren’t good, quite the contrary, in fact. But whereas The Creek Drank the Cradle and Our Endless Numbered Days were both strong albums which set up a unique musical niche, The Shepherd’s Dog feels like it actually defines Sam Beam’s unique folk project. It is the best example to date of what Beam, under the Iron & Wine pseudonym, is bringing to modern folk music.

The Shepherd’s Dog is an album of impressing depth, subtlety, and stark beauty. “House by the Sea” is an excellent testament to this, with rich, complex and interesting rhythms, a haunting melody, and thick, melancholy harmonies. It also features one of the single most powerful moments on the album when, during a brief vocal break, Beam confesses “The jealous sisters will sing on my grave”. It’s a perfect climax to a sad song about jealousy, obsession, and hurting the ones we (ostensibly) love. The song is also testament to Sam Beam’s incredible talent for powerful lyrical images and potent turns of phrase (“I’ve been sparing my neck from their chain”).

The whole album is full of songs that, like “House by the Sea”, not only sound good, but pack amazing artistic and emotional power. Beam is not only an excellent musician, but a great songwriter, lyricist, and singer as well. His sometimes muddled-sounding lyrics and his smooth, unornamented vocal style belie a masterful command of both the folk genre and of the English language. The psuedo-title track “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)” is a moaning, mournful tune, which is thick with dark, bluesy guitar lines and pattering percussion. The song also features an excellently messy, reverb-laden instrumental ending with some quality guitar work. The biblically-themed “Innocent Bones” floats placidly along, belieing the shard-tongued religious commentary of its lyrics (“There ain’t a penthouse Christian wants the pain of the scab / but they all want the scar”). “Resurrection Fern”, perhaps the most traditionally “folky” song on the whole album is a simple, acoustic-guitar-driven tune shot through with Beam’s image-driven, highly figurative lyrics (“In our days, we will live like our ghosts will live / pitching glass at the cornfield crows”

What’s perhaps more impressive than the simple, austere beauty of the album is how well Beam has managed to weave in new influences to his unique folk sound without sacrificing any of the melancholy power. “The Devil Never Sleeps” brings in upbeat American blues themes on the piano, which combines well with Beam’s smooth, lo-fi sound. The first album single, “Boy with a Coin” has some complex percussion which, while definitely not folk in origins, works well with the folk-y guitar hooks that it accompanies.

This is not folk in the Cat Steven or Joni Mitchell sense of the genre. It is more closely related, though only slightly, to the more contemporary Indie Folk acts like M. Ward, Elliot Smith, or Bright Eyes. It’s thematically rooted in American folk music, but has a decidedly “American Gothic” feel to it. Beam makes extensive and pointed use of religious imagery and of lyrics and stories set in rural America. He also uses instrumentation and musical themes which, while not traditionally “Folk”, are thoroughly American and are indigenous to such quintessentially American genres as Blues, Jazz, and Bluegrass. Even the religious tone of the album is particularly American, evoking notions of the Baptist revival culture of the South.

I don’t know how else to say this, really: buy this album. The Shepherd’s Dog is an interesting and enjoyable listening experience. It possesses incredible, dark beauty and tremendous emotional power. It is at turns rewardingly complex and deceptively simple. The album is musically and lyrically rich throughout. Sam Beam has not only far outdone his previous releases but has added finished, defined feel to his own subgenre of the American Folk project. It’s a subgenre rich in rural Americana and steeped in a quintessentially American musical heritage.

Apr 012007

Artist: Bright Eyes
Album: Four Winds EP
Label: Saddle Creek
Score: 9/10

For some reason, whenever I hear that Conor Oberst is releasing another Bright Eyes album, I’m always vaguely worried. Part of me is always worried that I’ll pick it up only to hear that Mr. Oberst has finally gone one album too far and catapulted himself off into the kind of melodramatic musical pretension that his music always seems to threaten, but (thankfully) usually manages to avoid. So it was when I heard that his new album Cassadaga would be coming out in April.

I was quite pleased, then, when I first heard the album single, the lyrical, country-tinged “Four Winds” and saw the top-talent line up for the album. I was also extremely pleased to see that they were releasing an EP to accompany the single. So, I dug a few virtual dollars out of my virtual wallet and ordered the Four Winds EP off Amazon, and ever since it’s arrived it’s been in fairly heavy rotation.

The EP has a little something for every kind of Bright Eyes fan. Were you a Lifted… fan? There’s the dark, rambling “Cartoon Blues”. More of a I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning kid? Try the Conor Oberst/M. Ward duet “Smoke Without Fire”. Did you did the more modern sound of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn? Check out “Reinvent the Wheel”. Whatever it is you’ve liked about Conor Oberst and his variety of musical friends, there’s at least one track on the EP that will give you your particular Bright Eyes fix.

What’s more, though, you’ll also get something a little new. “Tourist Trap”, for example, has the fuzzy, plodding, Folk-Blues sound one usually attributes more to M. Ward or Sam Beam. More telling, however, is the focus of the single EP: “Four Winds”.

[soapbox]I will say, “Four Winds” is one of those songs that is going to inspire a lot of irritation for me. Not because of the song itself, but because of how a lot of people are going to want to read into it. It has the epic sound and heavily referential style that always seems to bring out the pop exegete in listeners. And while there are many people whose opinions on the song I’m actually quite eager to hear, there’s going to be a lot more interpretations of it that are going to make me want to bash the speaker in the head with the nearest blunt object. In support for this theory: a link to the SongMeanings.com entry for the song. Of course, SongMeanings.com fosters this kind of lame-brained hyper-intepretive effect all its own, but with a song as rich and referential as this, some people definitely go nuts with it. I particularly like the “This song is calling for an end to civilization, YEAH REVOLUTION” meme that one of the commenters reads into it.[/soapbox]

The song is, though, kind of Eliot-esque in the way it uses references. That is to say, it’s not simply the seamless integration of allusions in the music, but rather the use of such allusions in a creative and productive way. The few references to Yeats’ “The Second Coming” are particular nice, with such unique appropriations as “hold us at the center while the spiral unwinds”. Similarly the biblical references, especially to the book of Revelations, the religious community of Cassadaga, and others. Of course the sheer concentration of allusion doesn’t reach Eliot strength, but it’s at least a few hundred milli-Eliots.

What makes song notably new, however, is not simply its allusion-heavy lyrical style, but its heavy country influence, its explicitly religious overtones, and a sense of social commentary which Oberst has, historically, avoided (at least until his two 2005 releases, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, in which socio-political commentary was a more evident theme.)

It’s always a toss-up whether or not a single will be qualitatively or stylistically representative of album from which it’s drawn, but in the case of “Four Winds”, I would certainly be happy to hear an album full of the kind of quality musicianship and songwriting evident on “Four Winds” and on the EP as a whole. And while it would be quite easy to overdo the swaying, plaintive Country sound and thick allusions heard in “Four Winds”, there seems to be no indication of that happening, if single really is an example of what we should expect from Cassadaga when it drops on April 10th (meaning, incidently, that you’ll have a chance to vote for a review it next week, if you’re so inclined).

So I think it’s pretty safe to say that my pre-Bright-Eyes-release worries have been well-assuaged by a proper single EP chock full of a variety of a variety of kinds of Bright Eyes goodness.