Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Defying Genre: Iron and Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean

Samual Beam (aka Iron and Wine)
At first glance, the dishevelled and heavily bearded Iron and Wine (aka Samuel Beam) bears a striking resemblance to a Yeti. Yet this folk singer, who inhabits the American Bible Belt with his wife and five children, seems to specialize in defying stereotypes. The prolific, multi-talented, highly educated artist has recently released his fourth full-length album Kiss Each Other Clean. If you’re still not familiar with the name, you may be about to witness a breakthrough. With Kiss Each Other Clean, Iron and Wine should finally gain the exposure he deserves. Over the last ten years, many members of his cult following remain disappointed with his migration away from his earlier trademark acoustic folk sound to multi-instrumental experimentation (and approve even less of his release on a major label, Warner Brothers), but Iron and Wine has done anything but sell out with this new masterpiece.

Sam Beam grew up in Chapin, South Carolina; he attended Virginia Commonwealth University and later Florida State University for his MFA.  Before embarking on his full-time music career, Beam was a professor of film and cinematography. While working on a movie, Beam stumbled upon a meal supplement dubbed Beef Iron and Wine; hence his stage name was found. Beam had been writing songs for years before he released his first album, The Creek Drank the Cradle (2002). His acoustic guitar and banjo sound earned him comparisons to early Neil Young and Simon and Garfunkel. With the release of his second album, Our Endless Numbered Days (2004), Beam’s career began to gain momentum; he recorded “The Trapeze Swinger” for the film In Good Company (2004), and a cover of “Such Great Heights” for Garden State (2004). Soon his music was featured on prime time television, including Grey’s Anatomy, House MD and The L Word. With his third album The Shepherd’s Dog (2007), he experimented more with electric instrumentation, migrating away from the acoustic folk territory. This expansion opened the door for a slot on the best-selling Twilight (2008) soundtrack. Kiss Each Other Clean is his most genre-bending compilation yet. 

Iron and Wine's Kiss Each Other Clean
The album opens with “Walking Far From Home.” The song is written as a letter home to a loved one, from a voyager describing his encounters with religious mysticism, nature, and humanity. The lyrics are nothing short of poetry: “I saw lovers in a window whisper, ‘want me like time’ / I saw sickness, blooming fruit trees / I saw blood and a bit of it was mine.” The sound can be described as a Fleetwood Mac style of 70s pop mixed with gospel inspired multi-part vocal arrangements. The musical calibre is set with this opening track the genre, however, is not. Beam continues to experiment with multiple genres and instrumentals.

His sound ranges from the funky “Big Burned Hand,” to the country-stimulated “Half Moon” and “Godless Brother in Love.” Then there are the vintage “Rabbit Will Run” and the synth-accompanied, super-cool “Monkeys Uptown.” While the album is not completely void of noise the epic seven-minute “Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me” becomes increasingly exhausted this compilation gets my complete endorsement. The unpredictable shifts in harmonies coupled with deep mysterious narratives keeps the listener utterly captivated. 

New listeners (and those who unconditionally follow musicians through their evolution) will be pleased with his brooding sophistication. Although the instrumentals stray far from Beam’s minimalism, what remains are tracks about love, heartache, dreams and raw rolling emotions, all narrated by his haunting whispered vocals and a perfected story-telling ability. Most interesting, and respectful, is that Beam continues to produce non-commercial music on a major label. While his music has gained momentum, his songwriting has not been compromised. 

With this new album, Iron and Wine has not sold out. He just has a new big sound. If anything, Kiss Each Other Clean proves that he’s now ready for the big leagues. 

 -- Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library. 

No comments:

Post a Comment