While I'm still in this midwinter mood, I'll note that Iron and Wine's new album, The Shepherd's Dog, is really quite lovely -- certainly Sam Beam's most accomplished, sophisticated work yet, though I'll always have a generously sized portion of cardiac real estate reserved for the stark "Naked As We Came" and "Sodom, South Georgia," two of the most perfect songs I know.
I didn't read a ton of reviews of the record, though I do recall quite a bit of fuss over his "world"-ish elements—see Joe Tangari in Pitchfork's year-ender, for instance: ""House By the Sea" rises from a Reichian pattern to a rubber-rhythmed song cut with dashes of West African music." (In the preficted world of pop, is "world-" the new "electro-"?) I must admit I don't hear a ton of globetrotting in Shepherd's Dog, nor the "forays of psychedelic rock" identified over at NPR. There's a sitar in "White Tooth Man," but to my ears its ragged harmonics sound more like a jaw harp, buzzy as a cup of campfire coffee, which is to say, totally American. (Although I suppose that psychedelia is quite American; still, this ain't no Magic Hour, say.)
I don't think Beam has ever been the purveyor of gentrified Americana that some take him for; this record should help him shed that rep. He's become a better arranger. Recognizing that the porch and the studio offer different kinds of freedom, he hasn't tied himself to the expected tropes: in addition to the pedal steel and the barroom piano there are splashes of dub delay and snaky African guitar lines. (There are internationalist elements here—see also the nod to Flamenco in the clapping hands of the single "Boy With a Coin." I just don't think they're as pronounced or as graspingly obvious as some reviews make them sound.) The studio play never comes off as gimmicky, though: on "Carousel," when he runs his voice through a rapid-fire tremolo effect, as though singing through an electric fan, I hear the wobble of a car's interior when the window's not cracked enough, and the sound throbs in your ear like a bird trapped against glass. (This must be the "experimental bent" that spooked
Entertainment Weekly.) Sometimes the studio meditations are a tad too much, perhaps--"Peace Beneath the City," traced with wah-wah guitar and loose-nut Rhodes, is more mood-piece than song, where Beam's always been a songwriter par excellence. Oddly, I find myself fastening onto the lyrics here far less than with the previous records; perhaps it's just a matter of time before the stories—because as older songs like "Sodom, South Georgia" and "Bird Stealing Bread" proved, Beam's as much a story-teller as a songwriter—open up. And by the end of the album, I find fatigue setting in, but perhaps that's because the first four songs are such an electrifying stretch of music. In any case, a wonderful record, and just the thing for a week of 'twixt-holiday downtime.