Thursday, August 13, 2009

Around the Well - Iron and Wine

Around the Well

Iron and Wine
Sub Pop Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

I misread Our Endless Numbered Days, I can see that now. Arriving in the heart of my university days, that record tugged at each of my friend’s tear-ducts and instilled daily life with an emotional fragility I found somewhat hollow. Much of my opinion was compounded by Iron and Wine’s (AKA Sam Beam’s) contribution to the soundtrack of Garden State, a movie that likewise left my friends swooning to the act of navel-gazing. And although I found the whole trend transparent, I was also twenty-one… meaning that I spent a fair amount of time listening to Beam’s Postal Service cover in my room with the door shut. In the wake of The Shepherd’s Dog and, well, getting a bit older, I’ve grown a solid appreciation for Beam as a creative songwriter and (word has it) tremendous performer. So it’s with a bit of irony that, years too late, my first Iron and Wine record to review manages to include ‘Such Great Heights’, my personal Iron and Wine turning point.

Nevermind that ‘Sacred Vision’ is almost the same song but with his own lyrics; Around the Well isn’t supposed to be a well-planned follow-up to 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog. Instead this double-disc collects Beam’s unreleased work from 2002 through 2007, in essence picking up after the loose ends of his whole career. The first disc occupies the hushed folk and country flavours of Beam’s most contemplative work, offering boy-meets-girl storytelling in ‘Hickory’ and last-farewell sentiments in ‘Dearest Forsaken’. Both finger-picking and vocals are as gentle and warm as the best of Our Endless Numbered Days, yet Beam continues to find new angles to rope listeners in with arrangements that render familiar feelings new again. Due to the nature of Beam’s selections, whereby disc one is comprised of raw, almost demo-style recordings, the first half of Around the Well suggests no clear highlights. As closely knit as these tracks are, disc one skirts homogeny by weaving into a mood-piece better suited for afternoon lazing than intensive listening.

Those pleasantly rustic compositions take on additional musicians and ambition – not to mention some technicolour sheen - for disc two, which amasses Beam’s studio outtakes. ‘Belated Promise Ring’, the first true highlight, bathes in Brian Deck’s acoustic-friendly production but also displays Beam’s oft-unmentioned talent for greater arrangements. Unlike the first disc’s one-man intimacy, Around the Well’s second half approaches The Shepherd’s Dog’s more intrinsic compositions on ‘No Moon’ and particularly ‘Serpent Charmer’, which menaces like foul play down by the riverside. Such imaginative storytelling felt quaint and controlled when backed by his lone guitar yet, when backed by a full band and expansive production, Beam’s narratives take a sinister angle that rules out casual listening.

Smartly separated between two discs, Around the Well justifies issuing work from both his early and more recent periods while providing us two wholly distinguished records to uncover. It took me a long time to listen to Iron and Wine as a songwriter as opposed to a singer and while I can still point out limitations in his style across these twenty-three tracks, I can’t find any errors in his craft. Even for a newcomer like myself, Around the Well is no stop-gap release… it’s simply too rich for that.

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