The last time we brought up Iron & Wine, I told a story about how I was really into the album Our Endless Numbered Days all the way up until I stumbled across a certain folk singer named Nick Drake. After hearing Nick’s songs and having my entire view of honesty in songwriting completely rearranged, suddenly Sam Beam’s beardy acoustic tunes, while still solid, seemed a bit lackluster.
Just in time for him to completely screw with the sound, eh?
Honestly though, readers, friends, this album is not bad. The fact that it’s praised universally by people who universally praise indie rock and use phrases like “songs you won’t hear on the radio that are ironically perfect for the radio” (paraphrased from all-music-dot-com, basically the Rolling Stones of not having to pay to read crappy reviews) and I’m actually not saying it’s bad, albeit through gritted teeth, should say something about the album.
Really though, I knew where folk entrepeneur Sam Beam was going to head with this particular album. Why? Because Myspace told me. Back when I used to the site, for some reason “he” friended me, and when I looked over the site, it was all stuff that seemed to be written by a promoter rather than Gandalf himself (for one, “he” used way too many exclamation points, and come on, does he sound like the kind of guy who would ever use an exclamation point?)
Anyway, having received some details about The Shepherd’s Dog, I knew not to expect it to be another Endless Numbered Days, but honestly, I should have seen the amount of “indie” that’s been thrown into this recording coming.
For one, there’s a “varied” sound at play here which means that all kinds of instruments are being thrown into the echoey mix in order to convince the listener that these aren’t just re-hashes of the previous album’s songs with added go-nowhere scales played on “obscure” instruments (that seem to get a lot of play nowadays for being so “obscure”, I guess that’s IRONIC huh?! HUH?!)
Seriously, to listen to the third song, “Lovesong Of The Buzzard“, you’re basically hearing “Sunset Soon Forgotten” from Endless Numbered Days with extra instruments thrown in. Go listen to both of those songs and tell me I’m wrong!
The other problem is with the go-to genres that this, like many “indie” albums, chooses to derive some jams from. For one, you’ve got the second track, “White Toothed Man”, which is kind of an Eastern influenced sound, and then you’ve got “Wolves (Other Title In Parentheses)” which is a reggae-inspired song. This is all well and good, but in fact you’ve still got Sam Beam whispering the vocals (usually with a second, even whispier Sam Beam harmonizing which turns the whole vocal project into this long line of melodic hiss), so you don’t really get the feeling that the borrowing of these stoner-favored musical styles are really producing the desired effect. Whispered Reggae just sounds like a hipster stoner battling against his own cultural identity, and less like the Reggae those of us of other levels of chemical enjoyment consider “Reggae”.
Thus, considering these rather major complaints that would kill any other album (especially since it’s already been injured by automatic acceptance into the indie community), I can not condemn this album. It would be like beating up a hipster, which is something we all want to do, but to take that step and actually break an emaciated, flaccid, bearded child over his six pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon would be far less satisfying than it sounds.
Anyway, it’s hard to deny that the songs are catchy on this album, after all, he stole a lot of it from his other album, didn’t he? Worse crimes have been committed in music, I mean hell Motörhead puts out pretty much the same song every single time and you don’t see me complaining. Mind you, Lemmy could cook and eat me without thinking about it, and he’s probably on even better drugs than Sam Beam. Man, now my imagination’s starting to get away with me and I’m picture some crossover in styles between the two singers, man that is creepy and awesome.
So yes, the songs are catchy, the melodies solid and the addition of some other instruments, no matter how ho-hum, is at least enough to capture the attention of this fellow musician for over half of the album’s 49 minutes. After all, even though I knew this album wasn’t going to be as good as the album I used to adore, I still went out and bought it on the good faith that it would provide some dark, mellow music for me to relax to. Turns out I am just fine relaxing with hand-claps and sitars as well as acoustic guitar, and the nice thing is that roughly 40% of the album is still little more than Sam and a guitar, so the sound is not so far gone.
Finally, loathe as I am to accept any part of hipster culture, I will admit that the oft-pretentious, acoustic drudgery that occurs within its circles is technically better than anything on the mellow side of the musical spectrum nowadays. We’ll never have Country music like we used to, and we’ll never have Folk music like we used to, for the mere fact that both of those styles and their plain-spoken poetry died with a generation that didn’t have Myspace pages written by promoters speaking from the mouths of glossy .jpeg’s of the artists you think have it all figured out but, like you or me, are just in it to make a buck. No, acoustic instruments might still be en vogue and even the folkier “obscure” instruments might be the ****IRONIC**** tools of “modern” music, but the simple lifestyle that bore some of the best music to ever be created by white people (and seriously white people do not have a lot going for us in that historical context) is now behind us, and so whispery, bearded songsters like Sam Beam and Iron & Wine are all that our children have to look back on once they finally destroy Johnny Cash’s back catalogue by converting it to hip-hop. But that’s a whole other diatribe that we’ll probably be too disgusted to bring up here again on Album Du Jour.
The point is, it may not be folk like your folks liked folk, but it’s close enough for folk, so you might as well folk your eyes out.