Thursday, October 9, 2008

Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog (LP, Sub Pop)

Sam Beam is the aural equivalent of a blanket - warm and comforting. His latest album, The Shepherd's Dog, is no different. While this album is a departure from the low-fi beginnings of his previous albums, The Creek That Drank the Cradle and Our endless Numbered Days (his first album was recorded and produced entirely by Beam himself in his home), Beam retains his trademark intimate finger picking and harmonised vocals.

With The Shepherd's Dog, Beam takes his craft to a new level while not resorting to the conventions of a traditional singer-songwriter. Instead of the gently strummed acoustic guitar and occasional banjo that characterized his first recordings, Beam surrounds himself with lush and imaginative arrangements. Gone is the lo-fi, dude-in-his-bedroom recording, replaced by a clearer more inclusive production. However, Beam's flawless phrasing and whispered vocals remain firmly at the epicentre.

The tracks on the album are not recognizably Iron Wine, from the bouncy opener "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car" to the psychedelic swirls of piano on "Lovesong of the Buzzard" 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". Beam is at his best, however, on the uncluttered "Flightless Bird, American Mouth", which has one of the album's most effective hooks.

The Shepherd's Dog is definitely Beam's most adventurous release to date, and though one might miss the discarded, sparse sound of early Iron & Wine, the beauty & splendor of The Shepherd's Dog will leave you wanting more.

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