Saturday, May 29, 2010

Album Review: Iron & Wine - Around the Well

Iron & Wine: Around the Well
[Sub Pop 2009]


While you may be hard-pressed to find many b-sides and rarities collections that can double as a repository of deep cuts as well as a fitting introduction to an artist, Around the Well is not far off from achieving this balance. The run of the two-disc set neatly parallels Iron & Wine’s discography of proper albums, from the bedroom recordings of The Creek Drank the Cradle to the fuller-sounding studio compositions of The Shepherd’s Dog, while also offering several engaging diversions, mostly in the form of covers.

Judging from the lo-fi recording hum and Sam Beam at his most breathy whisper, disc one encapsulates Iron & Wine as a budding folk artist with a sturdy inventory of gently strummed lullabies at the time of his debut. Just about any of the first disc’s original songs could have fit in well on Cradle, but that doesn’t make them jump of the page either. Despite Cradle’s cozy warmth and thoughtful melodies, the fragile sleepiness of the sound grew to be one dimensional, which is exactly the problem with most of disc one.

Naps may be gently disrupted, however, by recognizing covers of Stereolab, the Flaming Lips, and the Postal Service. Although “Peng! 33” fails to expand upon the original or break from the line-blurring aesthetic of his other lo-fi work, Iron & Wine’s cover of “Waitin’ for a Superman” plumbs more emotional depths and is a fitting, bare-boned complement to the original from Soft Bulletin. It’s unlikely that many listeners will be surprised by the cover of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights”, as it has served as Iron & Wine’s breakthrough song and an introduction for many to the artist, but it nevertheless is a clever repurposing of the strictly electronic original.

The pristine recording of “Communion Cups and Someone’s Coat” kicks off the second disc and quickly makes the case for Iron & Wine’s artistic improvement with each album. As if transitioning from black and white to vivid color, the guitar strings reverberate with serene clarity and Beam now has the room and resources to explore new folk styles and shine a more deserving light on his graceful lyrics. “Communion Cups and Someone’s Coat” and “Belated Promise Ring” are uplifted by angelic layered vocals and a welcomed studio polish job that enhances but never overburdens Beam’s compositions.

The studio work even goes beyond the electronic flirtations of The Shepherd’s Dog on several tracks, namely on “Arms of a Thief” with its uneasy buzzing and piercing hisses. The full band, fully realized “Carried Home” and “Kingdom of Animals” sound like they just missed the cut for The Shepherd’s Dog, especially the latter with its wonderful piano melody and pleasant optimism. Closer “The Trapeze Swinger”, a nine-plus minute beauty with mesmerizing looped background vocals and a warm repeating melody, is another fan favorite that helped Iron & Wine gain wider attention among indie folk circles. Around the Well’s showstopper, however, is a heartfelt and touching cover of “Love’s Vigilantes”, which wrings more emotion from it than New Order realized it had in 1985.

Ultimately, while Iron & Wine’s best tracks certainly reside on their three proper albums, Around the Well is a strong testament to Sam Beam’s wealth of delicately affecting folk rock material and an enjoyable retrospective on his career so far. Enthusiasts will undoubtedly come across tracks long ago archived in their own collections, but the consolidation of Iron & Wine’s best non-album songs like “Such Great Heights” and “The Trapeze Swinger” is nevertheless a convenient and welcome service. Although the true original gems of Around the Well don’t reside in the simple lo-fi tracks of disc one (if The Creek Drank the Cradle is your favorite Iron & Wine album, however, buy this now), Iron & Wine’s brilliant covers and vivid Shepherd’s Dog-era tracks yield numerous rewards. Besides reflecting on the past and present, Around the Well also hints at what Iron & Wine’s future will bring, which is something both enthusiasts and casual listeners can both appreciate.
Photo by Ella Mullins 

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