First Look: Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog

Photo by Tammylo

He’s been hinting at it for years. Indeed, from the early, lo-fi recordings that comprise The Creek Drank the Cradle and The Sea and Rhythm EP to his collaboration with Calexico on the In The Reins EP, Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam has shown himself to be a searcher. In addition to his formidable gifts of songwriting, musicianship and of course, that God-given voice, Beam has been a relentless experimenter over the last few years, both in the studio and on tour.

The Shepherd’s Dog is the end of the road. [Continue reading…]

At least for now. This is an album of fearlessness, of parts coming together to make something more. It’s as if Beam has taken everything he’s learned over the last few years and let it grow and evolve into this fantastic new creature; this is his Graceland, the album that finds him breaking away from the confines of traditional folk and becoming something greater. (Aside: I’m more of a Simon & Garfunkel fan myself, but moving on…)

The last time I saw Iron & Wine, on that tour with Calexico, Tim Rutili from Califone opened and performed along with the band. There’s a lot of Califone’s music in this new album; the attention to atmosphere and percussive range mirrors that band’s recent Roots and Crowns. But while Califone is the closest thing folk has to a post-rock band, Beam’s music has always been song-oriented.

He sacrifices none of that here. Having heard acoustic versions of many of these songs thanks to a recent concert bootleg, the tunes themselves survive quite well. Only their clothes have changed: what were once solo acoustic folk songs are now wild, flailing things, dressed in tribal percussion and electric guitar twitches. On some songs, Beam’s voice is pushed (perhaps unnecessarily) through filters, but it’s an effective tactic on the haunting “Carousel.” “The Devil Never Sleeps” is a rollicking honky-tonk song that makes him sound like an AM radio. “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)” bumps along with a sinister dub reggae flair. Each song fades into the next – it’s hard to tell where one ends and one begins, making for a seamless experience that isn’t over until the final exultations of the shimmering “Flightless Bird, American Mouth.” Purists will enjoy “Resurrection Fern,” a standard-issue I&W song with a particularly beautiful pedal steel part.

All in all, this is Iron & Wine’s most ambitious, exciting album yet. I’ve always thought Beam was at his best when he was alone, simply playing guitar and singing, but The Shepherd’s Dog is the payoff for the collaborations and percussive fixation he’s indulged in since his initial recordings. It’s a great album, maybe even a classic. Time will tell. But if nothing else, it’s the sonic Great Leap Forward that we all knew he was capable of, the sound of a truly gifted artist returning from his voyages in the outer limits of his art with treasure in tow.

Iron & Wine – “Boy With a Coin”: mp3

(The Shepherd’s Dog is due Sept. 25 on Sub Pop)


Looking for new music? Click below for more recent and upcoming releases or visit our MP3-filled Album Release Calendar.