Iron and Wine – Around the Well

This is a collection of B-sides and soundtrack songs. I’m feeling a loss of passion of writing passion for music reviews that nobody reads and I’m sick of having this on my iPod, so fuuuuuck foreeeeeever. Mostly good songs, with an equal smattering of completely forgettable songs and fucking incredible songs (holy shit “Belated Promise Ring” and “The Trapeze Swinger”) so get it if you care. I do, but I feel nothing in my sad, cold heart.

And there are covers! Lovely ones! Turns out lots of great songs still sound great when you break down and Iron and Wine-ise them! The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” is quite nice though of course still sickly sweet, and The Flaming Lips’ “Waitin’ For A Superman” is still heartbreaking, though a bit of a reminder that Wayne Coyne at his best is a better songwriter than maybe anyone ever and it’s understandable and sad that he can only reach those great heights a few times per decade. New Order’s “Love Vigilantes” isn’t a standout, but Stereolab’s “Peng! 33” is quite great, and nothing like the original. So, good job with the covers!

So, a few clunkers, but mostly a quite good collection of riffraff that sounds neither riffy nor raffy, just a bit underwritten. At least listen to the fucking “The Trapeze Swinger” because ZOUNDS! A TRAP DOOR!

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Whew! Nothing broken. Well, if you can still hear me from down here, I was going to say that “The Trapeze Swinger” is long and great and somehow never ended up on a proper album, and peak early Iron and Wine.

7 / 10

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Iron and Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog

The ol’ Salty shepherd’s dog trick. Following in the path of the Woman King EP, this is now the product of a full on band, with no rewritten old songs or signs that for years Iron and Wine was one guy in his bedroom, and then for more years a guy with his sister on backing vocals and few overdubs. This one’s got the full treatment: vocal effects, barroom piano, electric guitars, bongos, all the things to make this a “normal” album by a folk-rock group.
And you know? It’s quite good. Quite good indeed. But its missing a certain…well, the kids and Tom Waits called it dat feel and that feel, respectively. Beam’s still totally able to write touching songs, I do believe, but this endeavour is a bit too impersonal and Game of Thronesish. It feels like everything’s about some peasant in the woods with a dagger, even when it mentions interstates and strip malls. There’s no “Lion’s Mane” or “The Night Descending” to really stick it to your organs. And that’s not the end of the world, but it leaves the album without a lasting impression, which is a first for the ‘Wines.
So bah humbug I say, even if this is still a solid album, particularly its singles, the humid summery “Lovesong of the Buzzard,” catchy but annoying “Boy With a Coin,” and the trying-too-hard-but-mostly-succeeding “Flightless Bird, American Mouth,” and my favourite, the non-single “The Devil Never Sleeps,” which actually has some fun and clocks in at a svelte 2:09 long. There’s still nothing bad here, and I don’t think Beam has yet written a bad song, so there’s that, but he picks up a few pointers on this whole “complete band” thing as time goes on.

7 / 10

Iron and Wine – Live Bonnaroo

Aroooooooooooooo! This is a live album, so titled because the guys in the band were all aLIVE when they recorded it. And if you don’t think that’s funny, then you’re right and i’m sorry.
Live from the old-timey music festival Bonnaroo. this sort of official album features 19 songs from the first couple albums and first couple EPs, all taken from the “soft singing guitar guy” I&W era but sure as SUGAR not played that way. Here are some observations:
1. Sam Beam’s speaking voice sounds like extremely drunk Brian Wilson, if you’ve ever heard the hilarious outtakes album “Endless Bummer: The Worst of the Beach Boys” without the hilarious slurring.
2. The crowd friction’ eats this stuff up – nearly everything here gets a pop, and people in the crowd are regularly screaming “I love you!!!!” and, at one point, “Can I have your setlist?” Which, hey, fair enough and it can’t hurt to ask.
3. Sam Beamer’s also not great at crowd banter. Which is normal enough, but “do you guys like to dance or what?” is maybe not the best intro to “Cinder and Smoke,” even if it’s reggae’d up a bit. Also, “it’s your lucky day!” is a weird way to introduce the sedate (but beautiful) “Bird Stealing Bread.” It’s great that he’s playing more live-style music for the live scene, but dude, you’re still Iron and Wine, and you’re great and all, but we’re still probably not going to mosh. Just life, man, just life and how to live it, walking down that old eight lane in the shoes your father gave you, walking down that old eight lane in the shoes your father gave you to your job as CEO of a Fortune 500 company in that great muddy path in the sky, and in the ground, and in the wind, and in the fire, watching those old ashes rise, holding hands with your lover from years ago, whimpering through your inoperable mouth and dreaming of osculation and marshmallows and embers kicking into the air and trying to get into your eyes because they hate you they hate you they hate you just like everyone else so you need to always wear black because black is the colour of grief and goodness grief didn’t you remember how your mother liked saying goodness grief because it was proper and THIS IS NOT A PROPER WORLD so what was she trying to instill? Values?
4. He sounds cute when he giggles, though. And the crowd shouts some pretty stupid things at him (never mean, just dumb, like “I love music!” and “I love beards!”) so give the little big guy a chance.
5. This album features renditions of 4 songs from The Creek Drank the Cradle, 7 from Our Endless Numbered Days, five from the Woman King EP, one from the The Sea and the Rhythm EP, and two non-album tracks (a pretty true cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul” and a finger-picked run through soundtrack tearjerker “The Trapeze Swinger” as a closer).
6. Most of the banding up really works! If you’re obsessed with music it’s hard not to be impressed: an oeuvre that’s (to this point) almost entirely acoustic becomes a full band affair with drums and electric guitars and sounds equally good for it. Only a few songs stay faithful, but you won’t mind unless you’re a big ol’ stankpuss. “Freedom Hangs Like Heaven” gets a rip-roaring’ guitar solo! “Cinder and Smoke” gets kinda reggae!” “Upward Over the Mountain” gets a neat-o syncopated drum beat! “Teeth in the Grass” gets a big ol’ angry bass line – making a sad song about either murder or graveyards into a QOTSA-esque rocker. Yes!
7. But really, everyone sounds ecstatic, and it’s really nice. Maybe because I don’t hear the people who’re just waiting for it to be over so that they can go home, enter their rooms, and cry solemnly, but that’s showbiz. Really, a lot of good feels and great songs going on here, and it warms my little heart, even if I’ll probably never revisit it because live album.

9 / 10

Iron and Wine – Such Great Heights

This is a great single for me to listening to right now.

Yes, it’s true, folks: this is indeed a single consisting mainly of a Postal Service cover. Remember the Postal Service? They were Ben “Gibby’s and the Amazing Death Caberooni” Gibbard’s blippy electronic side project from that brief hopeful period between when we realized that Y2K wasn’t a thing and before we realized 9/11 would be.
“Such Great Heights” is a simpering, sweet love song that comes through on the basis of lines like “I am thinking it’s a sign / That the freckles in your eyes are mirror images / And when we kiss they’re perfectly aligned,” and this is a breathy, slow, acoustic cover perfect for inclusion in some romantic comedy, which is probably how this EP came to be.
Originally, this space was filled with me being sad about my relationship, but in respect to Ayn Rand’s comedy novel We The Living, I should probably shu’p, this being a public-facing and all.
And the B-sides are live in studio versions of fellow soundtrack wifeswapper “The Trapeze Swinger” and equally sexy “Naked As We Came.” So be sure to listen and get the blood buttered details. Because, as my girlfriend always says (earlier today): “I want to roll the dice on finding someone I love as much as I love you, but who can also commit to having kids.”

7 / 10

Iron and Wine (featuring Calexico) – In the Reins

More EPing around, and it’s almost like fencing when I say it that way, but no fear, this is the next logical step in Sam Beam’s becoming a real band leader. Where the previous EP saw him leading a restrained band in performing up his songs, here he’s got an entire band guest starring, rap-like, on the entire EP and making it a collaborative effort complete with band members who sound like they have minds of their own instead of being session folk. And it really is a band that does bandy things – electric guitars! Loud drums! Horn section! An opera singer on one track! Lots of nifty experimentation going on.
And golly, these are all old I&W songs, with pure solo home recordings floating around, but 1) it goes to show what a steady hand and a willingness to expand one’s sound can do to benefit a song, and B) This EP goes to show just how great Iron and Wine’s songs really are. Seven songs written for just an acoustic guitar (and one of them is the plodding, annoying-ass “Dead Man’s Will”), and here they’re given rein to wander off into the distant snow, and they flourish.
I only know a few Calexico songs, but here they’ve got a tight country-rock thing going on that totally meshes with I&W’s Southern sincerity, and they know their way around musical hooks. Seriously, these hooks are everywhere, like gravity. Some glorious indie-country stuff going on here.
And the songs. The songs and. I’m not sure what “He Lays in the Reins” is on about, but it’s a solid opener, and then “Prison on Route 41” kills, and then “A History of Lovers” kills, and “Red Dust” is a solid half-jam, and “Sixteen, Maybe Less” almost brings me to tears with its pathetic (and it calls itself on it) nostalgia for teenage love, and heck, even “Dead Man’s Will” becomes above average when it has backup vocals. And I realize I haven’t been too descriptive, but you’ve gotta listen to this EP! Music is the best we can all agree, yes? Like Frank Zappa said but without the sobriety and moustache. Because it makes us feel. And this takes me both to lives I’ve never lived and to previous times in my own life and to potential futures. All while chugging along pleasing me like I was born into genres starting with “country” and a dash. Excellent, excellent stuff.

9 / 10

Iron and Wine – Woman King

Oh, I know, I know, in between Woman King and the previous EP, The Sea & The Rhythm there was another EP, the iTunes Exclusive. Well, guess what:

No? Okay, I’ll just tell you. All four of those songs are on a later rarities. So eff that literal collection of noises.

This here’s a REAL EP. I’m not entirely sure what I meant when I wrote that last night after an hour or so or sitting slumped on my kitchen floor, but maybe this: often EPs are filled with sub-par filler tracks to pass the time until the next album. Here, not only are four of the six songs easily album quality, but there’s an important stylistic shift that makes things mega worthwhile. Namely, this here’s a BAND, not just Sam and the Beams. Oh, I’m sure he wrote all the songs, and his kindly, bearded, whispery falsetto is still all over all the songs, but previously where the music was an afterthought to get the listener from one Southern image to the next, here the band actually is responsible for hooks. And, don’t you just know it, they pull it off. And not only is it pulled off, but it is pulled off with aplomb. Imagine that! Stop imagining. Imagine that! Stop imagining.
So what’s the new I&dub band singing about? Powerful women, mostly. The title track’s what it says on the tin, but there’s also songs about the taken-back Jezebel, and the still-out Lilith, and less memorable tunes about his lady’s house and his grey lady. While the song matter sounds rather biblical and pastoral, and it is, Beam’s enough of a songwriter that for the first time his band sounds a little badass and a little swaggering.
Man, it hurts to type with a small cut on your finger from yesterday when I was cutting an onion to make Memphis style barbecue sauce. But there’s no songs about that, for some reason.
But there’s all sorts of interesting musical grooves on here, and played with enough assurance that it sounds like the first two albums and connected EPs were just special acoustic releases from a normally electric band. The slide guitar riff on the title track and the acoustic riff on the excellent “Freedom Hangs Like Heaven” will stick in your noggin long time. Early EP track “Jezebel” gets jazzed up and much improved with backup vocals and a jangling synth thing. “Gray Stables” may be only a groove, but it’s a cool, slithery groove. Ditto for “Evening on the Ground (Lilith’s Song),” though there’s also an uncharacteristic line about how “we were born to fuck each other one way or the other.” Man, when you don’t swear often it really has more impact when fucking you do!
So count this as a significant addition to the I&W discography. Guy that lives with his wife and daughters and sings about the South and powerful women and brewing tea is one thing. Guy that does it with a full band and pulls it off means reconsidering this whole “kindly” thing. Muy bueno. “My Lady’s House” is still completely forgettable, though.

8 / 10

Iron and Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days

Proper album number two from Beardy O’Softvoice! What’s comforting about Iron and WIne is the gestalt of the aesthetic. The songs are about what they “should” be about, and Sam Beam (who is both Mr. Iron and Mr. Wine) never breaks character, to the extent that if I met him and he got rip roaring drunk and talked endlessly about his masturbatory habits and how he wants to move to Manhattan I’d be shocked.
And what is that gestalt? Gentle, acoustic guitar-led, usually finger-picked ruminations on the brevity and beauty of life. It’s restrained and enigmatic, comforting and wistful, hopeful and nostalgic. Terrible workout music. Good dinner party music, but even better if you spend a couple hours to actually listen.
Still almost entirely acoustic guitar, slide guitar, and banjo, but now he has himself an actual studio, so the production values are higher and there’s the occasional trill to garnish things. Nothing dramatic, but a few gentle backup vocals here and there, or some brushy drums tapping along in the background. Nothing ever takes precedence other than the gentle guitar and Beam’s breathy, moist voice, so I hope you’re in the mood. No hooks come from the accompaniment.
I have a few quibbles, like “Cinder and Smoke” being too six minutes longish for it’s level of interesting, and the tracklisting frontloading the album with songs with similar picking patterns and saving all the breaking pitches for the second half. Also, there’s a perfectly lovely song about birth and love and death and stuff called “Naked As We Came,” which I can never hear without thinking about silly that title is in today’s era of me being a manchild that loves puerile humour. Like this: the last time I heard that song I was naked. And I came. Hee! Haw! Yes, the “Naked As We Came” jokes are endless around these parts.
But the aforementioned breaking pitches? They’re wonderful breaks from the usual! I love the brief falsetto-y lullaby (Beam can pull it off) “Radio War,” and I love the accessible “Free Until They Cut Me Down,” where Beam and the band actually get a little excited, and I love the closer “Passing Afternoon,” which is maybe the most accessible thing here, so far as gently strummed ruminations can be accessible. But you can still be a smarty pants and notice how each verse covers a different season of passing afternoons. The moody “Teeth in the Grass” is charming as well, and the rest, the fastballs, are uniformly solid. Like blankets, all snuggly and agnostic and iced tea. It’s still not for the androgen-drenched angry teens out there, but for everyone else…what are you gonna do, come with all your clothes on? That could get messy! Hee haw! Hee haw!

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

Some copies came with a special (pronounced “expensive” since it was the days before mass digital downloading) bonus CD that has four extra songs on it. Two are demos – one of “Cinder and Smoke,” my least favourite song from the album, and one of “Free Until They Cut Me Down” – that don’t differ enough from their album versions to have good reason to be released. The latter lacks the album version’s drums, but we didn’t The other two are legit outtakes, one is the gentle post-breakup tale “Swans and the Swimming” that maybe pushes the sweet imagery a bit too far with the line “Now the rain is as soft as a lover’s words,” but your mileage will vary since it’s otherwise quite lovely, and the other, “Hickory,” is to my ears a bit too hookless, but is nice. Easy to see why it’s not cut for the album, but hey, they’re bonus tracks, aight? I’m truly sorry for any I & dub fans I may have offended. I’m really, really terribly sorry, I know you’re all violent people.

9 / 10