Iron & Wine – [Album]

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Rare beauties emerge in Iron & Wine’s latest release with a two-disc collection of a rare, never-before-heard and new-to-print collection of unyielding goodness. From hidden treasures of 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle to soundtrack-bound leftovers and side-picks from The Shepherd’s Dog in 2007, this sampling from the span of Iron & Wine’s career is nothing short of magic, especially for those rabid fans—however rabid folk fans can get.

The first disc is a deliberate, lower-fidelity collection of soulful selections. The slow scratch and subtle pop of a needle through a record’s grooves serve as a signature undertone throughout. Its raw, basement and concrete wall acoustics add the perfect flavor to the perfect set of songs.

This is especially true for a cover of that gem of a Postal Service single from 2003. If you somehow missed Iron & Wine’s cover of “Such Great Heights” off the Garden State soundtrack, it comes in for a nice closing at the end of the first disc. Sam Beam’s voice drags to the deepest depths of his soul and delivers those Ben Gibbard lyrics in a droning, all enveloping daze. These lyrics were meant for a softer take and while the almost electro-pop original came first, this is a welcome rendition to a classic.

Nearly every album in Iron & Wine’s discography has been an exploration of Beam’s abilities to weld musical genres, combine forms of harmony and instruments so that they emerge in a new form. The undertones of that wholesome folk jive remain but in songs like “Serpent Charmer,” there’s that undeniable Eastern twang—the spindly string, the warbling wind and the mesmerizing drum beat literally pull the snake out of the basket and the belly dancer to her feet. Somewhere there’s a gypsy whose castanets are slapping together wildly, the beads adorning her two-piece are flailing uncontrollably and in the parallel universe of Around the Well, Sam Beam is performing the soundtrack to her life. This is easily one of the best tracks on this compilation.

With a welcome return, “Carried Home” appears on this compilation as it did on the “Boy With a Coin” single. The heavy bass moves the track along and the poignant lyrics are undeniably representative of what we might expect from Iron & Wine. It’s practically uncharted territory based on what we’re probably used to, but it’s the occupation of musical ground that makes this track truly special.

The second disc is like the lovechild of musician friends, upscale recording equipment and a heightened production value—an experience of music listen all on its own. Still, it’s this purposeful mode of presentation and not a distinction of production value that separates it from the first disc. “Belated Promise Ring” starts off as maybe the most upbeat, skip-through-a-dandelion-field set of bass licks and finger picking in the discographic history of the band. However, it’s not all pockets full of posies—even while the track evokes images of a happier and simpler time like thimbles, tree stumps, imitation pearls and red balloons along the boardwalk—it’s packed with forlorn lyrics and frighteningly delicate nostalgia. It wouldn’t be Iron & Wine without something like this, though.

Around the Well credits its namesake to lyrics from fan-favored track, “The Trapeze Swinger” and includes some amazing covers alongside these garage recordings and unheard soundtrack bites. We’re graced with a much less synthy—but still poppy—cover of New Order’s “Love Vigilantes” and a way-mellow and thoughtful version of The Flaming Lips’ “Waitin’ for a Superman.”

Here’s to more of that sweet and tender finger picking goodness, soft claps in the foreground to carrying beats and those just-like-honey vocals from Sam Beam in 2010. Iron & Wine have reportedly started to work on the follow up to The Shepherd’s Dog and by spring of next year, we might just have a flood of new material to get all folksy over. Until then we have our tasty rarities, new-spun covers, flipped out b-sides and some intimate shows to keep us mostly satiated—for now.


Iron & Wine – “The Trapeze Swinger” – [mp3]
Iron & Wine – "Belated Promise Ring" – [mp3]

Around the Well is out now. Buy it on Amazon.

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