May 6, 2004

Test Spin: Iron & Wine

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There seems to be a growing trend among singer/songwriters in the recent past to ditch their real names and go by monikers more traditionally used for actual bands instead. Some of these musicians are ingenious (Cat Power, Bright Eyes), while some are emotionally manipulative charlatans worthy of scorn and ire (Five for Fighting). Fortunately, Sam Beam, who goes by the name Iron & Wine, falls into the former category. Iron & Wine’s unique style is difficult to describe: think Nick Drake coming out with an album of variations of the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon.” Beam’s anachronistic songs play like long-lost standards — campfire melodies filled with achingly beautiful hooks and poetic verses. Iron & Wine’s debut The Creek Drank the Cradle was an unexpected, lo-fi masterpiece recorded straight out of Beam’s basement. Many intellectual hipsters had worried that Our Endless Numbered Days, recorded in a real studio, would be devoid of the organic intimacy of the former. This worry was for naught, for Beam knows how to take anything and make it beautiful (except maybe that horrifying, unseemly beard of his), and he has used the recording studio to enhance the atmosphere of his lullabies, with his trademark intimacy still intact. For instance, the tender “Cinder and Smoke” benefits from the improved technology: Iron & Wine combines exotic chants, painful moans, and Oriental strumming to bring out the poignancy hidden beneath the surface of the song. Iron & Wine doesn’t take a single note for granted; in the tradition of tunesmiths such as Lou Reed, he is aware of the power that comes with perfectly-crafted melodic minimalism. With a second classic now under his belt, Sam Beam has proven himself to be one of the best songwriters of our generation, creating gorgeous, magical worlds that transcend both time and place. Now if only he would do something about that beard.

Archived article by Jared Wolfe
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer