|Iron and Wine
||Kiss Each Other Clean
||21 January 2011
As the years go by Sam Beam in the guise of Iron and Wine has been edging out of the solitary comfort of his lo-fi cave into the big bright world of full blown productions. This can be a double-edged sword so much so that on his fourth album Kiss Each Other Clean, the Southern songsmith comes perilously close to a flesh wound.
Producer Brian Deck returns and builds Beam’s folksy and cavernous vocals into the seventies folk rock foundation of choice. 'Me and Lazarus' combines Beam’s love of Country, Funk and Pop without alleviating the idiosyncratic blips and beats so associated with previous work. The track grooves like experimental John Martyn. Despite being aided by a lazy sunny feel and dense backing vocals it is plainly just pleasant and ultimately unremarkable.
An early highlight is 'Tree By The River' that bizarrely sounds like The Bee Gees at their sixties balladeering best. I mean that in a good way. When Beam sings "Marianne, do you remember the tree by the river when you were seventeen" you can almost see Robin Gibb launch into 'Massachusetts'. All joking aside it demonstrates the artists’ great pop writing ability.
'Monkey Uptown' sets the tones away from Folk Pop. It meshes what sounds like xylophone percussion with effects laden guitar. This is murky Stevie Wonder territory and all the good for it.
The smooth Californian optimism is entrenched by now and continues on 'Half Moon' which breezes by. However, in spite of the presence of some spacey vocals, it never really leaves its mark. Beam, as his previous efforts have testified, is more concerned with layered 4/4 progression rather than verse chorus verse. This track illustrates the point.
The Afro Beat drumming comes into focus on 'Rabbit Will Run' with restrained guitar and keys lower in the mix. Beam hints at melancholy in the lyrics and vocals. The jazz flute near the end reiterates the Soft/Prog Rock sound throughout the album. The same goes for 'Godless Brother In Love' albeit with piano. Neil Young album filler springs to mind when you hear it first. For a man with such an extravagant beard everything feels a bit too cosy for my liking.
'Big Burned Hand' and 'Glad Man Singing' wipes off the cobwebs with some dexterous funk interplay between the bass and the wah-wah guitars. The Seventies influences are modernised by the sonic juxtapositions at play. The distorted singing on the former is handled deftly against the guitar effects. This could be a more adventurous Traffic on display. 'Glad Man Singing' is Iron and Wine at their best. Beam’s diverse influences merge well together. The melody is in keeping with the groove. Lyrically, he tests himself like nowhere else on the album.
"A burned out boat called trial by fire".
The closer 'Your Fake Name Is Good For Me' makes great use of Afro-Beat so associated with Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors. It shows Iron and Wine as a band within a modern context as well as yearning for the past. The track begins all very predictably with soul rock motifs, as usual, prevalent. What is interesting is the change near the middle, firstly with some strangled sax and then with a jagged guitar in bravado Neil Young mode infiltrating the mix. Even Beam sounds like Shakey on 'Down By The River' in a crescendo that knocks the record’s light mood on its head. This is more in keeping with the dying flame of some balls out Rock album than the soft centred Folk inclinations of Iron and Wine.
Whether you like it or not, the set definitely ends with a bang of some distinction. Unfortunately the rest of the album on a whole does not have this sort of panache. The songs themselves still hark back to the previous record The Shepherd’s Dog in their skewered Americana and narrative structures. His arrangements still swoon in their immediacy. He can still be compared favourably with those high up in the Pop canon of melody makers. But possibly his sparse lo-fi edge is being clouded by his love of the Pop history. To misquote Neil Young, once you know you’re in the middle of the road drive straight towards the ditch. Mr. Beam, your dirt track awaits.
- Tim Gannon