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Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 January 2008
ImageThough Bob Dylan’s legacy hangs over modern songwriting in complex and incalculable ways, it’s possible that his most lasting contribution is the dichotomy his music established between the “serious” world of folk music and the comparably “frivolous” world of pop music. Of course, Dylan had little to do with this himself. He was an admittedly eager consumer of Little Richard and Chuck Berry records in the ‘50s, and he didn’t shy away from befriending the Beatles when they were the symbol of all that was anathema to the folk community. Still, the seriousness of his artistry and the sagacity of his writing soon made it very clear that his music wasn’t for screaming 14-year-old girls and teenybopper radio, and he brought into the mainstream a challenge to every self-respecting tunesmith who deemed themselves worthy of picking up a guitar and a pen to bring something more substantive than empty platitudes and love clichés. After Dylan, an artist had to at least give the appearance of a certain level of seriousness to be taken seriously, and carrying an acoustic guitar and being lyrically inscrutable were (and still are) generally enough to discourage any notions to the contrary. As much as any other modern act, Iron & Wine belongs to this tradition.

Emerging at around the same time that the psychedelic folk resurgence was gaining traction, Sam Beam of Iron & Wine doesn’t have much more than superficialities in common with his shaggy-haired brethren. For one, he favors understatement and hushed tones, writing songs thick with metaphor and symbolism instead of fairytale whimsy and vague platitudes. For another, apart from his unusually prodigious beard growth, there’s nothing even slightly outlandish about Beam’s persona, and there are few reasons to wonder what odd incantations echo through his home. If Conor Oberst is the modern equivalent to Neil Young, Beam is arguably the counterpart to James Taylor, an everyman sage from the Carolinas with a catalog of songs that provide material for contemplation but seem otherwise designed not to rock the boat. Still, Beam never goes for the same sentimental cheese that has marred Taylor’s lesser moments, and his writing reads more like Biblical prophecy than someone’s private journal. In short, where freak folkies often seem to place much priority on music as a community ideal, creating a way of life that just happens to include their art as one facet, Beam is truly a poet. He’s a serious songwriter, no doubt, with gravitas to spare, but in comparison his songs are just more careful, more sturdily and obviously built, and, often, far less interesting.
His third full-length, The Shepherd’s Dog is Beam’s first significant creative curveball, uprooting the largely threadbare acoustic renderings of his first two albums and throwing a full band into the mix. Following up on a collaborative album he made with Americana standouts Calexico as his backing band, Beam has been tending in this direction for some time, and it’s natural that he should eventually push his music to its next stage of evolution. Still, leaving the solemn intimacy that earned him his reputation is a dangerous prospect, as Beam’s strength has been in creating a perfectly insular sonic space where his simple arrangements provided an uncluttered setting for his remarkably imaginative writing. Now, piling on layers of electric guitar, piano, organ and hand drums, the results are mixed, at best.

To his credit, Beam’s introduction of more conventionally arranged sounds doesn’t pull his music into the adult contemporary gutter where it easily could have gone. Instead, he favors a vaguely psychedelic mix, like the trilling swirls of piano on “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car” and the thick electric guitar lines and sitar of “White Tooth Man.” Without a doubt, this is Beam’s most experimental moment, with nearly every track tangled in crisscrossing melodic lines, whether the fuzzy pedal steel and handclaps of “Boy with a Coin” or the squawky harmonica of “House by the Sea.” Even so, despite the bit of back-masking and hazy guitar leads, Beam is still at his best on the comparably uncluttered “Flightless Bird, American Mouth,” a straightforward waltz that captures him inhabiting various first-person perspectives en route to one of the album’s most immediate hooks.

Far less successful are Beam’s stylistic experiments, as the slightly Caribbean feel and breezy melodies of “Innocent Bones” and the mewling wah-wah guitar lines of “Peace Beneath the City” never build much beyond their soft rock grooves and empty-ended hooks. Even worse is “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog),” with a go-nowhere groove propped up by blandly layered vocals and scratchy electric guitar that comes off like the Eagles making an awkward stab at funk. Even “The Devil Never Sleeps,” a track that recalls early Joni Mitchell drained of her jazz inflections, seems misguidedly paired with a boogeying piano line.

As always, Beam remains an arresting lyricist, but his cat’s cradle of Biblical allusions and meticulous Southern gothic signposts get buried under the layers of reverb. Still, his eye for detail is startling, even when it’s unclear that he’s saying much of anything at all. Plainclothes cops rub elbows with the Holy Ghost, jealous sisters wait and plot in a seaside cabin, and one protagonist even transforms from a boy to a housecat, but it’s all just as easy to overlook as it is to follow, as nothing comes through particularly coherently. Like Dylan circa Highway 61 Revisited, it’s a vividly imagined universe that Beam creates, one full of characters that seem torn out of the mythology of the folk tradition, to be cast upon a surreal backdrop of timeless cultural references. But unlike Dylan, Beam’s words can be ignored without much effort, allowed to drift through the arrangement as another blurry instrument in an admirably adventurous though ill-fitting mix.

The main shortcoming of The Shepherd’s Dog is that it sits so solidly in the bland crossroads of folk, pop and rock, never tipping decisively in any particular direction. That alone is surely not a shortcoming, as there are few things in life more boring than an artist who wants to solidly fit into one clear musical tradition, but Beam’s lack of melodic or rhythmic variation renders his music into one soft focus lump. Often, he simply sounds tentative, lost among the layers of sonic gloss. His vocals barely, if ever, register much above a layered half-whisper. His arrangements are repetitive to a fault, often settling into comfortable mid-tempo two-chord groove never really featuring choruses or particularly memorable verses. His phrasing is without nuance, never placing any more emphasis on any word or lyrical couplet, underselling the theatrical potential of such rich narratives. Instead, he performs songs with no sense of drama or urgency, with no stubborn hairs out of place and everything dissolving into a wash of softly malted harmonies and plaintive guitar strums. For certain, the songs aren’t without their charm, but even after repeated listens the melodies seem flat and underdeveloped, the performances lack energy, and the grooves grow stale after a few minutes of cycling through the same simple turns.

All in all, The Shepherd’s Dog is the work of a serious artist, not likely to be mistaken for childish fluff anytime soon. Still, it’s a strangely unfulfilling ride, easily his most eclectic and adventurous release but also his most unfocused and least memorable. Despite the increased assortment of sounds, the songs end up feeling less varied than the guitar-and-vocals arrangements of his previous albums. In retrospect, what those releases lacked in deviation they more than made up for with clarity, with songs perfectly constructed to make the most of their limited resources. Here, he’s a painter with too many colors to choose from, covering over previously sharp edges with a blurry wash of tones and textures. No doubt, Beam is an artist with something to say, but never before has that statement sounded so muffled.

Though earlier Iron & Wine albums displayed a paucity of textures, those releases often featured a clarity and crispness that The Shepherd’s Dog lacks. With thick reverb hanging around the edges of every electric guitar line and warm organ riff, there are no sonic peaks or valleys, only soft tones that grow tiresome in their universally hazy aura. That said, the textures often sound suitably rich, though so busy that they steal attention from Beam’s hushed performances and dryly understated vocals, with small instrumental touches that require close listening (or high end equipment) to fully separate in the mix.

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