Since the release of "The Creek drank the Cradle " in 2002, Samuel Beam, who uses the stage name Iron & Wine, has released a string of fine albums and EPs. Since the release of "In the Reins", a collaboration with indie-rock band Calexico, it seems that Iron & Wine's way of working has slighty changed.
This change is very noticable in 2007's "the Shepherd's Dog", Iron & Wine's most diverse, most approchable and best record to date. Changing from the habitual lo-fi, guy with a guitar in a room sound so charming but a bit repetitive in the end sound, Beam surrounds himself with a large arrangement of instruments, including accordions, violins, a hammond and steel guitars. These instuments never interfere with the artist's trademark sound of hushed vocals, eery and melancholic landscapes mixed with an ever-present southern presence, but only enhance them and make them even more personal and warm. You still feel as if you're right next to Beam, him singing the songs right into your ear, except that this time he's brought a couple of friends along.
The change is noticable right off the beggining with the folky and southern-tinged "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car", where Beam charms us with some warm and lively singing and shows again why he's as much a poet as a he's a singer with lines like :"I was still a beggar shaking out my stolen coat / among the angry cemetery leaves / when they caught the king beneath the borrowed car / righteous, drunk, and fumbling for the royal keys". "House by the Sea" has a dancey (!) undertone, with its Afro-pop influences and funky bass, helped along with Beam's lively singing. Catchy piano-parts come up in "Innocent Bones", making it a warm sunny folk song, close to the artist's earlier work. Echoes of earlier work can also be heard in "Resurrection Fern", who's beautiful and haunting sound is augmented by Beam's excellent lyrics ("It'll keep everything:The babies' breath, our bravery wasted, and our shame".) As if to surprise us even more, "The Devil Never Sleeps" is there to catch us after the melancholy of the previous songs and remind us again why diversity is such a good thing: mixing jazz, bluegrass and some early rock'n'roll with a prominent piano makes this a great, fun song.
All in all, I listend to this record straight and then put it back on a couple of times. I've done this quite often in the '07 (it is a great year for new records, after all), but this record just keeps pulling me back and keeps on surprising me. And that hasn't occured very often this year.
RIYL: The Mountain Goats, Dustin Kensrue, Lullaby for the Working Class, The Snake The Cross The Crown.