I bought Iron and Wine's CD "The Shepherd's Dog" on the strength of the single, "Boy With a Coin." I've listened to it multiple times now, and realize that "Coin" is actually one of the weaker songs on the CD. It has quickly become one of my favorites, although it was released in 2007, and I bought it this year.
Iron and Wine is more or less the brainchild of Sam Beam, who writes all the songs and does lead vocals. This is not a rock album, nor is it pop. It is generally called alternative, as are most CDs on the SubPop label, but that's a tag that includes a number of styles. Although electric instruments are used on this CD, it has the feel of an acoustic album, and the emphasis is on melody and lyrics rather than great riffs or anthemic chords that will rock you. You can choose to let it slide in the background of your life, but it calls to you to pay attention. At first the lyrics seem to be somewhat stream-of-consciousness, but the more you listen, the more sense they make. Either that or I'm slipping into Sam's subconscious!
The first track "Pagan Angels and a Borrowed Car, opens with what may be a banjo line, then is quickly filled in with other instruments, although Sam's voice, and the background vocals of "ahhh" and "eeh" are what you really hear. The opening line is "Love was a promise made of smoke in a frozen copse of trees" and Sam pronounces "copes" to rhyme with "hopes", not "cops" (which according to my dictionary is incorrect -- but it works) .. then "Every morning there were planes, the shiny blades of pagan angels in our father's sky..." Just as you're getting into the groove of the song, he jars you with the lyric, "the birds had s**t our empty chapel pews, " which doesn't seem to fit. Pagan Angels is in a major key, and lyrically does seem to slide between a story and just words strung together.
The next track, "White Tooth Man, " is not quite a minor key. The string section (violins) hits you first, then a piano with a sort of descant in the background that's then echoed by the lyrics. Although the song isn't particularly fast, the lyrics sound fast, and are a little hard to follow without the printed insert -- which is also hard to follow because some lyrics go from left to right while others are written vertically. A notable lyric is 'When the white tooth man I ran with then got all cut up from pissing out in the weeds and a fight upstate with a broken blade and a wife whose finger never wanted a ring" -- if you can figure out the meaning, you're doing better than I am, but just flow with it, and it doesn't seem to matter.
I won't go into detail about all the songs, but my two favorites are "Resurrection Fern" and "Flightless Bird, American Mouth." Resurrection Fern uses a steel guitar to good effect, but don't let that fool you into thinking that makes it a country song. No pick-up trucks, honky-tonks, or DIVORCE for Sam & Co. "In our days, we will live like our ghosts will live/Pitching glass at the cornfield crows and folding clothes..." Hmm. That does sound sort of country doesn't it? But it isn't -- you have to hear it! "When Sister Lowery says 'Amen' we won't hear anything/The ten-car train will take that word like a fledgling bird..." Lovely. And the chorus: "We'll undress beside the ashes of the fire/Both our tender bellies wound in baling wire/All the more a pair of underwater pearls/Than the oak tree and its resurrection fern." Being a northerner, I'd never heard of a resurrection fern; it's an epiphytic fern that grows on oak trees, and in dry weather seems to curl up and die, but when it rains, it uncurls and greens up again. I love the imagery of the pair of underwater pearls, and the oak tree with its resurrection fern.
"Flightless Bird, American Mouth" is one of the shorter tracks on the CD. It's almost minor; I've forgotten most of what I used to know about composition and music theory, so I apologize for not being more precise. I love the chorus of this song as well: "Have I found you, flightless bird, jealous, weeping, or lost you, American mouth, big pill looming..." The music moves me even more than the semi-intelligible lyrics. Either Sam Beam is an amazing poet, or he's the Dr. Seuss of alt-rock; I lean towards the former.
The entire CD is 49 min., 52 seconds long, and contains the following 12 tracks: Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car, White Tooth Man, Lovesong of the Buzzard (and there are buzzards in lyrics throughout the album, as well as dogs), Carousel, House by the Sea, Innocent Bones, Wolves(subtitled Song of the Shepherd's Dog), Resurrection Fern, Boy with a Coin, The Devil Never Sleeps, Peace Beneath the City, and Flightless Bird, American Mouth. Unlike many CDs, this one seems to have been planned as a complete work. By this I don't mean that it tells a single story, but rather that the songs join seamlessly without being repetitive. A number of different instruments are used, from the afore-mentioned pedal steel guitar, banjo, violin, and piano, to a synthesizer, bass, and at one point what sounds like a flute but may be the synthesizer. They don't all appear in each song, but they all suit the songs they're in.
I realize I'm not the best CD reviewer on Shared Reviews by a long shot, but this CD has turned out to be much more difficult to review than the classical music I've reviewed in the past. One has the feeling that Sam Beam is an accomplished and versatile musician, as well as a poetic lyricist -- there is nothing "pop" about this CD. His voice is restrained and soft throughout, but it has the feeling of great power, held in check for the right moment, which doesn't happen to be on this CD.
I'm looking forward to more from Iron and Wine, or Sam Beam on another project. I'd recommend this to anyone who's bored with most of the music being released these days. At the very least, listen to the clips on Amazon, but this CD is worth the price, and then some. It may be an acquired taste, but with a few listens, you might just acquire it.