Taking us all by surprise, last week Sam Beam (the artist behind Iron and Wine) announced and released a CD of old demo tapes entitled Archive Series Vol. 1. For those of you familiar with Beam’s work, it started with the stripped back, whisper folk of The Creek Drank the Cradle before building towards a more electric jazz/gospel influenced sound culminating in his most recent offering Ghost on Ghost.
I fell in love with Iron and Wine when I completely by chance stumbled upon a tab for ‘Cinder and Smoke’. Liking both the name of the song and group, I gave the track a listen and was captivating by the softness of the vocals and simple beauty of the melody and harmonies. Since then, I have bought every recording Beam has released. While the most recent albums are still good works, highlights in particular being ‘Walking far from Home’, ‘Godless Brother in Love’ and ‘Winter Prayers’, I cannot pretend to far prefer his early work. There is something wonderfully evocative in both the recording and musicality of it, which particularly speaks to me of rural settings and summers. Having spent nearly all my summers spent between Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and west Wales, it is obvious why this mood connects so well with me.
Therefore, I was delighted to see him release a CD solely consisting of the very genesis of this style. The production on the whole album has the warm feel of a home-recording without being so lo-fi as to take away from the listening experience. Likewise, the instrumentation is limited to acoustic guitars, Sam Beam harmonising with himself and the occasional banjo. The melodies are simple, but captivating, on the whole giving a restful and dreamlike feel to the album.
It opens with ‘Slow Black River’, a moody affair with deep, breathy vocals. For some reason, it reminds me of ‘Beneath the Balcony’, even though there is little similarity between the melody of the two songs. From then on, the album continues in a similar vein, with a fairly even balance of poignant, melancholy songs and and more upbeat, although often still poignant, tracks. A lyrical highlight is ‘Two Hungry Blackbirds’, which is on first listen a deceptively simple love song, but clearly something far deeper on further listening. This track also wins the title of favourite lyric from the album: ‘Heaven’s a distance, not a place’. Another favourite is the fantastic, moody and chugging ‘Halfway to Richmond’, a song with rich harmonies concerning a dying love. ‘Minor Piano Keys’ exhibits some very interesting work with scales which rarely feature in Beam’s later work, and give the song a very unique character. You can definitely hear seeds of Beam’s future work in some tracks, with ‘Loretta’ (sadly not a Townes van Zandt cover) being based on a progression which later became ‘Faded from the Winter’.
All in all, this is a great album, and a welcome return to Iron and Wine’s earlier days. Listeners unfamiliar with Beam’s work may be put off by the lo-fi feel, but in my eyes this is only really an issue on ‘Judgement’. In contrast, loyalists will doubtless be delighted with this release, and I advise anyone with an interest in folk and acoustic music to have a listen to this work, which is rich in harmony, musicality, melody and is an evocative telling of lost and half-grasped rural and youthful dreams.
Summary: 4/5 Stars
Highlights: Slow Black River, Two Hungry Blackbirds, Everyone’s Summer of 95, Minor Piano Keys, Halfway to Richmond.