I’ve finally done it. After years of enjoying music, I’m finally learning how to play it. That’s right, I’m now the proud owner of a banjo. It was the music of several artists that influenced my decision to learn: Sufjan Stevens, Sam Beam…Kermit. I’ve been infatuated with the sound of the banjo thanks the resurgence of the instrument through these folk artists. My favorite albums of theirs rely heavily on the banjo. For instance, even though I’m not particularly religious (read: not at all), my favorite Sufjan album is Seven Swans. So, you can understand my dismay when I heard that the forthcoming album from Iron & Wine was to be, in the words of the artist, “significantly different.” The Shepherd’s Dog, arriving in late September, is the result of work done over the last two years, only delayed to stores because of the birth of Beam’s fourth child. Boy With a Coin is a preview single / EP for the album, featuring one song from the album, the title track, and two b-sides. If these songs are any indication, which they must be, then I had nothing to worry about.
It seems ages ago that we were last blessed with an Iron & Wine album. Not counting the collaboration with Calexico, it’s been three years since we’ve seen a full-length album from the Florida native and current Austin, Texas resident. If the waiting has become unbearable, Sub Pop has at least temporarily slaked our thirst for a brief while. “Carried Home” is the perfect choice as an opening track, as it is a delicate bridge between Our Endless Numbered Days (particularly “Free Until They Cut Me Down”) and the upcoming The Shepherd’s Dog. We are treated to Beam’s intimate vocals delivering more of his story-based songwriting, but we are also hearing more than we heard before. There are keyboards, Caribbean percussion and various and sundry other textural sounds throughout the six and a half minute track. The lyrics themselves actually paint a picture more than tell a story, this time of a small Southern town atmosphere in which the people welcome home a dead soldier. “Kingdom of the Animals,” a summery love story about a girl named Jenny, has Beam dropping the guitar for the piano, which is somewhat jarring at first, but his voice with its whispery falsetto tone sets us at ease, even throughout the twanging steel that finds Beam leaning more towards country than folk.
But the true shining moment belongs to “Boy With a Coin,” the song that truly heralds what is to come. Rhythmic handclaps, wah-wah guitars and heavy bass drum sounds introduce the new sound of Iron & Wine in a dramatic and incredibly exciting manner. Yes, this is still the recognizable Sam Beam we all came to know and love with songs like “Jesus the Mexican Boy” and his cover of “Such Great Heights.” It’s just that Sam has enriched his musical vocabulary. Think of Sam Beam as a thick juicy steak, unless you’re a vegetarian, and then think of him as a huge Portobello mushroom. The extra instruments and broader sound, of which I was initially afeard, are like Montreal seasoning. Yes, it changes the flavor of the steak, but you still know what you’re eating, and it simply enhances the experience. “Boy With a Coin” is an incredibly infectious song, not exactly easily classifiable as pop quite yet, but Sam Beam has put a little more indie into his indie folk. Actually, what’s most impressive of all is that Beam sounds cooler than ever, even now that he has four kids.
Elliott Smith- Figure 8
Fields- Everything Last Winter
Sufjan Stevens- Illinois
MP3: “Boy With A Coin”