Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Album Review: Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog




Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog

(2007, Sub Pop)

Grade: 89%

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In a March Billboard interview, Sam Beam stated his upcoming release The Shepherd's Dog would be a "playful" album. He went on to describe how touring with alt-country rockers Calexico had enhanced his sound, giving Shepherd's Dog a "wider sonic palette" than previous Iron & Wine releases. Well, there you have it folks: my review of The Shepherd's Dog, from the man Mr. Beam himself. Just one thing. He forgot to mention its his best album yet.

At the risk of sounding ridiculous, Shepherd's Dog could be considered the shepherd's pie of Sam Beam's catalog, as familiar elements are layered to create a seemingly effortless yet fulfilling effect. At once we have the li-fi folk of The Creek Drank the Saddle, country rockers a la In the Reins or Woman King 's spectacular "Evening on the Ground," and put-a-cigarette-in-your-arm odes that could have easily nestled into Endless Numbered Days. (In the aforementioned Billboard interview, Beam notes that all but "Carousel" are reworked discards from previous albums. Dare I mention that traditional shepherd's pie relies on leftovers? I'll let you figure out which tracks are the meat, the potatoes, or the corn.) Along with the familiar tracks, Mr. Beam tosses listeners a few new bones: calypso-infused numbers like "Lovesong of the Buzzard," the saloon-ready "The Devil Never Sleeps," and the African-drum-driven "House by the Sea." At last Beam's music is as multifaceted as his lyrics.

Poetic lyricism has always been Iron & Wine's forté. Beam blends the concrete with the abstract, the optimistic with the pessimistic, the love of life with the journey toward death -- all with the everyman quality that makes his music so charming. Listening to Sam Beam is like listening to two friends chronicle the workday over tinkling whiskey glasses. As far as I'm concerned, he's the only writer who could make breast milk romantic (See: "The Sea and the Rhythm"). The lyrics on Shepherd's Dog are as equally comforting ("dogs...eating snow," "long baby hair") and jarring ("grandmother's gun," "a tattoo of a flower on a broken wrist"). My only complaint about this album's "wider sonic palette" is that the lyrics -- and Sam Beams "cinders and smoke" vocals -- suddenly have to share the spotlight.

Whenever a band steps up their production, the naysayers get their cords twisted, their preconceived notions crushed (this critic sometimes included). The band's innocence has been ruined, they proclaim. Thankfully the multi-layered production on Shepherd's Dog never seems overworked or oversexed, but instead complements the staple Iron & Wine sound (consider the reverb that kisses Beam's vocals on "Carousel"). The music is polished but remains intimate. Intimate and playful, the best of Sam Beam's world.

3 comments:

Girlfriend said...

nice review.
great album.

James A. Foley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James A. Foley said...

I don't look at many album reviews. But this one is the best I've ever read.

(oh, had to delete my first post due to a misspelling. I know you understand.)