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In seven short years, Iron and Wine’s songs have evolved from single-cell lullabies to prog-folk ecosystems. Sam Beam‘s last album, The Shepherd’s Dog, was full of high-intensity mosaics layered with click-clack percussion, electric guitars, voice filters, etc. His newest fans probably wouldn’t recognize the guy plucking deliberately on The Creek Drank the Cradle, The Sea and the Rhythm, and Our Endless Numbered Days.
For these people, Iron and Wine’s new two-disc release, Around the Well, is a good primer on what made Beam a cult sensation in 2002, when the erstwhile cinematography instructor took the neo-folk scene by storm with a collection of lo-fi recordings that seemed swept from the porches of Appalachia. Around the Well is a compilation of various singles, covers, and songs composed for soundtracks that never made it on to any of the albums—mostly from the band’s early period, when you could still hear Beam’s fingers sliding along the coiled steel of his guitar strings and his lips smacking on the odd consonant.
A friend recently told me he thinks Iron and Wine concedes too much to those who would peg it as “background music.” Maybe, but this is only a recent phenomenon: The Shepherd’s Dog was so crowded that is lost a lot of the intimacy that made the early albums so compelling. The layered elements of songs like “White Tooth Man” and “The Devil Never Sleeps” converse among themselves, and can be easily ignored; the earlier songs—the sort that inhabit Around the Well—speak plainly and look you right in the face.
But why settle for metaphors? Here’s an excerpt from “Morning,” a track off the first disc of Around the Well. It’s quintessential early Iron and Wine: an eight-measure intro, a finger-picked four-chord progression, a sighing acoustic slide, and Beam harmonizing with himself in a shy whisper about seasons and barnyards. It recalls a simpler time—both in the history of man and the history of Beam’s music.
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