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Sunday, 26 June 2011

REVIEW: Iron And Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean [2011]

N.B. This is the first of a series of guest posts from HeySharpshooter.

Sam Beam, or perhaps better known as his moniker “Iron and Wine,” has been one of the defining artists of his generation. Beam’s first three musical outputs, the EP Sea & the Rhythm, his debut full length Creek Drank the Cradle, and his most beloved album Our Endless Numbered Days, brought American folk music to a new generation. Legions of lesser artists are still imitating his lo-fi, “whisper folk” sound even to this day.

It’s a wonder that Beam has spent the last 5+ years doing everything he can to escape the sound that made him so influential. It was obvious Beam planned to up the volume a bit in 2005 when he released the fantastic, bluegrassy Woman King EP early that year and then performed with Alt Country legends Calexico on the album In the Reigns. But fans were not prepared for 2007’s The Sheppard’s Dog, which had Beam completely abandoning his roots in favor of psychedelic Country rock and smoky Blues rhythms. It was a lot to take in for fans, and it left his massive fan base shell shocked. In the end, The Sheppard’s Dog proved both brilliant and folly: an album that makes a bad first impression but grows on you like weeds in a flower bed.

So the expectations for Kiss Each Other Clean, his newest offering, were obvious: another major step away from his whisper folk sound into another new sound. And indeed, Kiss Each Other Clean is filled with tracks completely different from anything Beam has ever done. It’s an album that is most defiantly looking forward, but also takes a deep, introspective look back on the sights and sounds of the past. It’s both a defiant challenge to long time listeners and a concession to their desires. And it is because of this contrasting focus that Kiss Each Other Clean is arguably Beam’s finest work. It’s an album that’s brilliance shines through instantly and enthralls the listener, begging them to delve deeper into it.

The albums opener, “Biting Your Tail”, shows just how far Beam is willing to go: an electronic, almost light rap/R&B tune with a head-bobbing bass line and plenty of electronic beeps and a heavy dose of synth. Beam rhymes through the whole song, playing up the hip-hop angle seemingly just to drive fans of his older material insane. Beam does not stop challenging his listeners here, however: “Tree By the River” is classic 70’s soft rock with a folksy undertone, “Me and Lazarus” plays up the funk to 11, and the albums best track, “Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me” is filled to bursting with saxophones, jazzy electric guitars and funky percussion before evolving into an almost operatic Rock song that ends in a crescendo of static, blasting guitar licks and Beams falsetto hauntingly proclaiming “we will/become, become.”

Tracks like “Half Moon” stand in stark contrast to these to those songs: it’s classic Beam, just him, his acoustic guitar, a little piano and a little female back-up vox. Beam’s voice, which was once only a whisper for both stylistic and ability reasons, is stronger than it has ever been, and the only difference between “Half Moon” and the rest of Beam’s early catalogue is his strong voice, which now soars over the song as opposed to melting in with it. “Glad Man Singing” follows a similar path, and while “Godless Brother in Love” makes extensive use of piano and layered voices, the overall structure of the song would fit in perfectly with any track on Our Endless Numbered Days. The albums single, “Walking Far From Home” is a unique combination of both the new Beam and the Old: lyrically, its pure folk, but musically it’s a mix of drums, layered voices, synth, piano and guitar. It’s such a perfect unison of the two Beam’s as to be almost glorious(a certain Greatest American Artist of All Time keeps it from being great.)

Perhaps the saddest thing about Beam’s musical evolution is that so few seem to be truly enjoying it for the glorious transformation it is: his sudden shift in style has left a lot of his fan base cold and an unforgiving media furious. Where once Beam was named among the great songwriters of his generation, he is now an afterthought among most still bitter over the changes made. This has not deterred Beam in the slightest, and if ever there was a thing to be thankful for, it is that.

Grade: 10/10

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