Since 2002, Sam Beam has been releasing indie-folk albums under the name Iron & Wine. Beam’s haunting, whispered vocals and soothing guitar melodies have earned him critical acclaim and a devout fan-base almost as big as his unwieldy beard.
Perhaps Beam’s only failure at this point in his career is that his greatest success has come not through original work, but through a cover song: Iron & Wine’s raw, pensive rendition of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” that was featured on the Grammy winning soundtrack to “Garden State” and is consequently embedded in the hearts and minds of countless hip, contemplative young adults.
The group will try to reach an even wider audience with their third full-length album, “The Shepherd’s Dog.”
But unlike Iron & Wine’s debut – the sparse and beautiful “The Creek Drank the Cradle,” written and recorded by Sam Beam alone, “The Shepherd’s Dog” features a full backing band.
The acoustic guitar, banjo, and slide guitar that once defined Iron & Wine’s sound are still prominent, but they are accompanied by a myriad of other instruments.
The inclusion of everything from piano and electric guitar to bongos and hand claps may seem like a surefire way to spoil the stunning, modest beauty of Iron & Wine’s tried-and-true formula. But tracks such as the energetic “Boy With a Coin” blend these elements flawlessly to create rich, spirited songs that sound more like progressive rock than folk.
Similarly, the rambunctious “The Devil Never Sleeps” – a brief, irrepressible tune with the bluesiest barroom piano on this side of the Mississippi – concludes in a dissonant, feedback-ridden haze.
Don’t let expressions such as “feedback-ridden haze” concern you too much. The hushed, serene Sam Beam who so many have come to love is still alive and well. There is no shortage of quiet, subtle songs on “The Shepherd’s Dog” and the inclusion of more complex arrangements only makes the simple ones more powerful.
Case and point: when the ornate din of “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)” subsides and is replaced with the barren melancholy of “Resurrection Fern,” the transformation in tone lifts the latter track towards a remarkable, transcendent beauty.
The song’s elegiac charm is enriched further by Beam’s characteristically evocative lyrics: “When Sister Laurie says, ‘Amen’ / We won’t hear anything: / The ten-car trains will take that word / That fledgling bird.” Like a great poet, Beam has a knack for condensing pages of emotion into a handful of lines.
In this same way, Iron & Wine seem to be able to take the most simple chord progressions and spin them into profound and unforgettable songs. On “The Shepherd’s Dog,” Iron & Wine manages to experiment successfully with a variety sounds and styles without betraying their folk roots.
If that isn’t a feat worth overshadowing their appearance on a certain motion picture soundtrack, I don’t know what is.
Staff writer Nick Scheidies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org