There's something primal about Sam Beam's music. And when I say primal, I mean old---not wild, feral, and uncouth, but some ancient thing that wells up from a deep historical and cultural well. It's the same feeling you get from the theophanies of the blues and the supernatural, superstitious spiritualism of the Southern Gothic (as expressed, for example, in Flannery O'Connor).
My exposure to Iron & Wine is admittedly limited. I heard his first album, Our Endless Numbered Days, a few years ago in college. I thought it was good, but kind of forgettable. The music had some interesting harmonies, but his breathy voice was a little too John Mayer to make me like him. But a year or so later I heard "He Lays in the Reins." I just had to respect the way Beam had combined the machismo of the vocals of Mexican ranchero ballads and the twang of an electric slide guitar with a lulling, cascading rhythm. This was music as expansive as the landscape of the American west, but without all the sell-out sentimental jingoism and emotional manipulation of modern country music. That takes talent.
Then last month I read Susan M's review of The Shepard's Dog over at Kulturblog. I was convinced. I bought The Shepard's Dog the weekend we moved, and have been meaning since then to do a write-up. Finally, now that oral arguments are done, I'm getting around to it.
The Shepard's Dog is easily Sam Beam's best album to date. It is certainly the most ambitious and the most musically complex. Beam lays down layer upon genre-straddling layer of rhythm, melody, and counter-melody. The music has an almost symphonic quality to it. And he uses a wide variety of instrumentation drawn from several traditions to keep it interesting. With jumping rock-folk rhythms and more expansive vocal back-ups, the music rocks enough that Beam's breathy voice doesn't bother me in this album---less John Mayer, more Dan Fogelberg.
"Lovesong of the Buzzard," for example, starts with a syncopated hand percussion line entwined with a simple acoustic guitar strum. Vocal melody comes in, and is joined by harmony. Then a cheery Van Morrison/Janis-Joplin style organ comes in and slowly grows in volume and complexity. Then the acoustic guitar part picks up and gets rocking. Thats when the accordion arpeggios start. That's right: accordion arpeggios. The tracks ends with a little nautical-sounding accordion part that is joined briefly by a western electric slide guitar and then breaks down into chaotic electronic noise.
The album opens with one of my favorite tracks: "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car." If King Lear had had a theme song this would be it. It begins with a steady acoustic guitar rhythm, develops with some Celtic-inspired slow-drawn fiddle, more complex acoustic guitar parts, and otherwordly vocal harmonies, and then climaxes with some high piano twiddling. The different parts work together and jam like an Appalachian jug band transported into some heather-crowned Celtic highland. You gotta love these lines:
I was still a beggar shaking out my stolen coat
among the angry cemetery leaves
when they caught the king beneath the borrowed car,
righteous, drunk, and fumbling for the royal keys
But even though Beam draws heavily on folk roots, it's not all fiddle and gut-bucket. This album also nods to celtic, reggae, electronic, Indian, country, and other traditions, but it plants its roots squarely in rock and roll soil. The second track, "White Tooth Man," opens with sitars and sounds like a late Beatles tune. The tenth track, "The Devil Never Sleeps" is a joyful old-time rock and roll tune. With its snippets of honky-tonk-esque piano and its 12-string/electric guitar duets, it sounds like an early Beatles tune. And the last track, "Flightless Bird, American Mouth," is a waltz ballad picked out on acoustic guitar with accordion and electric guitar accents and almost Righteous Brothers-esque vocals. The title track has a reggae beat, but combines it with a groaning 12-string and a Janis Joplin style organ part. "Peace Beneath the City" gives you sitars with wah-wah electric guitar, a deep background cello drone. A Theremin makes a ghostly appearance.
"Ressurection Fern" is perhaps the simplest song on this album. An single acoustic strum and a shaker holds up the tune, supported only minimally by electric slide accents. This song is a mystery to me because it reminds me of country music but doesn't make me want to stab lead pencils through my eardrums. Even C likes it, and she hates country even more than I do.
Another substantial strength of The Shepard's Dog is that Beam is enough of a poet that he matches his interesting sounds with equally interesting images. Just as the sitars in "White Tooth Man" echo the sound of late Beatles, that track's lyrics mirror the imagery of songs like Eleanor Rigby. Beam's line, "the postman cried while reading the mail and we all got trampled in the Christmas parade" reminds me of "Father Mackenzie, writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear." The Shepard's Dog is fraught with images of rural America, religion, and nature. It deals with themes that range from violence to innocence to consumerism, but does so through images rather than polemics. As a result, the poetry is subtle, unobstrusive, and memorable.
This is an album worth having.