Monday, May 25, 2009
Album Review: Iron And Wine-Around The Well
In the annals of recorded music, nothing has been more revelatory than the "rarity compilation" album. Sometimes a band or artist will release such an album as a way to fulfill their contract obligation to a record label. Sometimes it will see the light of day due to a scramble for money. Whatever the reason, these albums will show what a band or artist is capable of when writing a song that isn't deemed "worthy" of being released on a proper full length. Thus, you have some that are certified clunkers, with no cohesion and frankly, not many good songs. On the other hand, you occasionally will come across a songwriter that is so good, so talented, that basically anything he or she touches can't help but be worth your time. Thankfully, the new release from Iron And Wine, "Around The Well", falls into the latter category.
This album could be viewed as a bit of a cliff notes version to Iron And Wine's recorded history. The first two full length albums (2002's "The Creek Drank the Cradle" and 2004's "Our Endless Numbered Days") featured Sam Beam's quiet, but incredibly effective, voice accompanied by his acoustic guitar. While there were occasional embellishments, such as slide guitar or piano, it was definitely basic singer-songwriter fare. Shortly thereafter, Beam released a six song EP entitled "Woman King", and subsequently collaborated with rock band Calexico for the album "In The Reins". These two albums allowed Beam to expand a bit more, and 2007's "The Shepherd's Dog" brought this sound full circle. Listed on many "best of" lists for that year, "The Shepherd's Dog" showed Beam crafting fully realized "band" material, while losing nothing in intimacy.
That "Around The Well" parallels these different sounds is no surprise, given that the material on the album was often times recorded in the same sessions. Divided into two discs, disc one is full of hushed, self-recorded material. Disc two features the fully shaped sound. While many of these songs, such as the well documented cover of The Postal Service song "Such Great Heights", along with the songs recorded for the soundtrack to the movie "In Good Company", have had fairly widespread releases, others have not. These less well known songs are what this album is all about. While the first disc falls a bit into redundancy, the sound being presented is nonetheless captivating, even if it's nothing new. Disc two shows Beam as he becomes more accomplished and confident with what he's doing. Last track "The Trapeze Singer" is a nine minute tribute to a long lost friend. While it's not particularly inventive, it certainly reminds one that a tremendous amount of power can be projected with heartfelt lyrics and a well constructed chord progression.
When it comes down to it, "Around The Well" is a great document showing the evolution from a one man band into a certified musical project. While cohesion certainly does present a problem (this is a compilation album, after all), it's nothing that a few listens won't take care of. What "Around The Well" does do is prove that Sam Beam is capable of writing compelling songs no matter the context. But anyone who's a fan probably already knows that.
The Trapeze Swinger