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Iron & Wine

The subtle moniker of IRON & WINE might seem like a peculiar combination, but it is the stage name of one Samuel Beam (who sounds not unlike a character from a turn of the century American novel himself). As it turns out it’s not quite such a romantic source, rather, it’s taken from a jar of dietary supplements called Beef Iron and Wine. Deft folk-rock is Beam’s stock in trade and he’s been plying his trade successfully since the early 2000s.
In the post-grunge fallout, Seattle label Sub Pop were struggling to find their niche again but were revived in part by their releasing of the debut IRON & WINE album THE CREEK DRANK THE CRADLE (2002) {*8}. Written, recorded and produced by Beam at his home studio, the one-man band nature of the record did not stop the energy or fragile beauty of Beam’s songs shining through. An EP, `Sea & The Rhythm’ followed in 2003 and Beam’s second album OUR ENDLESS NUMBER DAYS (2004) {*7} arrived six months later to similarly celebratory reviews.
The `Woman King’ EP illustrated Beam’s prolific writing skills – the EP was themed around strong spiritual women plus showed his desire to expand the IRON & WINE sound. Adding (shock, horror!) electric guitars to the mix. The record proved a segue-way into another left turn for Beam, this time a collaborative recording with Tucson, Arizona’s CALEXICO, entitled `In The Reins’. The band brought their dusty Tex-Mex flavours to bear on Beam’s warm acoustica to joyous effect. CALEXICO’s Joey Burns went on to appear on subsequent album THE SHEPHERD’S DOG (2007) {*8}, which enjoyed a more lush, expanded sonic palette than its predecessors. Beam also found an unlikely fan in teen movie vampire hottie Kirstin Stewart, who requested that `Flightless Bird, American Mouth’ from the album be sound-tracked to the prom scene in the blockbuster movie, Twilight.
AROUND THE WELL (2009) {*7} extensively compiled together numerous unreleased and hard to find tracks while Beam’s fourth long player – and first for new label Warner Bros – KISS EACH OTHER CLEAN (2011) {*7} was as pop as anything Beam had ever produced. Lead single `Tree By The River’ was a perfect example of the evolution – Beam’s folk songs shot through the prism of 70s American FM radio.
Much the same could be said for IRON & WINE’s pop-tinged fireside follow-up, GHOST ON GHOST (2013) {*7}, his second transatlantic Top 40 success. Imagining what ELLIOTT SMITH or BONNIE `PRINCE’ BILLY would’ve sounded had they hooked up with BACHARACH & DAVID, the intimacy of songs like `The Desert Babbler’, `Joy’, `Low Light Buddy Of Mine’, give the impression Beam’s in full control. Once again stalwart producer Brian Deck steadies the ship, a ship that has little chance of getting into stormy seas, and, with jazz drummer Brian Blade and DYLAN bassist Tony Garnier as his midshipman crew, somehow echoes of the breezy 70s come to mind – SEALS & CROFT, ALESSI and DAN FOGELBERG.
Not Beam’s most commercial decision of late, the indie IRON AND WINE & (BAND OF HORSES’) Ben Bridwell’s alt-country collective set, SING INTO MY MOUTH (2015) {*6}, re-tuned and turned the tables on a range of nuggets. Whether your bag be respective JJ CALE or JOHN CALE, one could love or loathe interesting versions of `Magnolia’ and `You Know More Than I Know’. Pitting SADE’s `Bulletproof Soul’ and EL PERRO DEL MAR’s `God Knows (You Gotta Give To Get)’ alongside works penned by DAVID GILMOUR (`There’s No Way Out Of Here’), TALKING HEADS (`This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)’) and SPIRITUALIZED (`The Straight And Narrow’), it all might’ve been a bit bold and brave, but many new-to-modern-day roots music might’ve missed BONNIE RAITT, RONNIE LANE, MARSHALL TUCKER BAND, PETER LA FARGE and other essentials.
Dispensing with the weighty/giddy IRON AND WINE pennant for the collaborative, Sub Pop-endorsed LOVE LETTER FOR FIRE (2016) {*7} set, SAM BEAM and fellow folky JESCA HOOP were a match made in harmony heaven. She’d been recently responsible for the well-received `The House That Jack Built’ (2012), but here the pair’s individual talents drew from a wishing well of 70s soft-rock/roots-country influences. Produced by Tucker Martine and augmented by drummer Glenn Kotche (of WILCO) and bassist Seb Steinberg (ex-SOUL COUGHING), it was indeed a hard task to pick the best from breezy contenders `One Way To Pray’, `We Two Are A Moon’, `Know The Wild That Wants You’ and `Valley Clouds’.
Having cut a handful of covers singles, the first combining NEIL YOUNG’s `Albuquerque’ and The FOUR TOPS’ `It’s The Same Old Song’, the second a download of CYNDI LAUPER’s `Time After Time’ for a McDonald’s TV ad, Sam Beam’s IRON & WINE was again in contemplative mood for 2017’s BEAST EPIC {*8}; a record that recouped some mid-table chart action. Beam had now stripped back the accompaniment, relying now on his seasoned vocals and acoustics on eleven autumnal tracks, including `Call It Dreaming’ (think LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III and/or an Americana NICK DRAKE), opening salvo `Claim Your Ghost’, `Thomas County Law’ and `About A Bruise’.
Exactly a year on, August 2018 saw the bearded one fire in another EP, `Weed Garden’, a 6-song leftovers platter (also recorded in Chicago) that highlighted `What Hurts Worse’, `Talking To Fog’ and long-time live staple, `Waves Of Galveston’. Fog’ and long-time live staple, `Waves Of Galveston’. Nearly a year on from that, and some fourteen since IRON & WINE’s inspired collaboration (`In The Reins’) with CALEXICO, alt-Nashville was alive and kicking up a dust storm a la `Years To Burn’.
© MC Strong 2011/GFD2-MR / rev-up MCS Apr2013-Jun2019

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