B sides that deserve to be up there with his major work.
Chris Jones 2009-08-26
Collections of B sides, outtakes and oddments tend to imply a holding pattern, staving off a creative impasse: not so with Sam Beam. Under the Iron and Wine moniker he's simply produced a huge amount of material since 2002. This double album, divided into demos and studio recordings, just goes to show how his creative impulse is always worth paying attention to.
On the album's first disc, comprised of lo-fi home recordings, the focus is the intimate (yet never sloppy) graininess of Beam's first attempts to capture his muse. The hissy quality of these bedroom poems is perfectly matched by a voice that almost seems covered in dust. His whispering, keening approach to singing can often make you think of Sufjan Stevens, although his cleverness is less in how many musical plates he can juggle and more about working small miracles with a limited palette.
Disc two's studio work shows how both Our Endless Numbered Days or The Shepherd's Dog could have been doubles themselves, such is the calibre of these cast-offs. Possibly the most sacrilegious thing you could say about Beam is that the quality of his larynx, and especially his delicate finger-picking, make him something of a post-modern Paul Simon. That's not an insult by the way; it's just a way of saying that despite the impressionistic wordplay he unfailingly delivers an unfashionable prettiness that escapes most of his contemporaries. On the closing nine minutes of The Trapeze Swinger (from Paul Weitz's 2004 film, In Good Company) a simple three-chord vamp is elevated by a tune that only the truly talented could conjure.
Sinning Hands does qualify as what many would term alt-country: in other words, it sounds a little like Neil Young. But there's far more going on here. No Moon could be Tom Waits backing JJ Cale, whereas Serpent Charmer utilises backwards tapes, bongos and blips to drive it along. Yet such is the singularity of Beam's vision that cover versions hardly stand out, being moulded to his distinctive style. You get the feeling that, more often than not, they're chosen because they fit into his lyrical universe (New Order's Love Vigilantes and The Flaming Lips' Waiting For a Superman). However, anyone who can cover Stereolab's Peng 3 and make it their own has to be applauded.
Around the Well, rather than an addendum to a fine career, deserves to be regarded as being up there with his major work.