‘but no one likes a beggar slightly overdressed’

Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
(Warner Bros, 2011)

Samuel Beam was one the first “indie” folk artists to catch my attention.  And by “indie”, I mean recording on an actual independent label.  My favorite record store in Southern California is Lou’s Records in Encinitas and even though I wasn’t still living down the street from Lou’s in 2004, my parents were.  So that meant you could still find me browsing the aisles of that small store on the Pacific Coast Highway at least a couple times a year.  One particular day that year, they were playing Our Endless Numbered Days.  I was immediately drawn to Samuel‘s understated vocals pouring out over simple percussion and acoustic guitar.  When I found the CD in the “indie” section (once again, a section for actual independent labels), I thought twice before buying it.  The oil painting of the bearded man seemed a little too ‘hippie’ for my taste, but I put my bias aside and bought it along with The Creek Drank the Cradle.  This purchase opened my mind to modern folk music and eventually opened my world to the likes of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Calexico, Horse Feathers, The Tallest Man On Earth, Bon Iver and countless others.

When I first moved to Denver, I couldn’t wait for my first Red Rocks season.  The opening show that year was the comedy folk-duo Flight of the ConchordsIron & Wine were opening.  I was nervous to say the least, being a big fan of Iron & Wine, but doubting their ability to fill the amphitheatre with their sound.  The Shepherd’s Dog had been released and this album took their sound a little further, adding elements beyond the simple guitar, but I still thought this music was better suited for a small, dark venue.  I am happy to say I was proved wrong.  Samuel‘s voice carried all the way to the people in the upper rows and the acoustics were amazing in the perfectly still night.  It was my first time seeing Iron & Wine and I was in silenced awe.

After The Shepherd’s Dog, Iron & Wine put out a compilation album of b-sides, outtakes and unreleased songs as their last release for SubPop.  It was called Around the Well and it is my favorite Iron & Wine release.  Since most of these songs are pre-Shepherd’s Dog, its got that striped-down sound that we have become accustomed to.  I have played that album a hundred times over the past couple years and it never gets old.  The thing is, it left me unprepared for Kiss Each Other Clean.

Kiss Each Other Clean is Iron & Wine‘s major label debut.  No longer “indie” and no longer a simple folk singer with a guitar.  This album has a big sound.  It starts out with Walking Far From Home with a wall of electric guitar, heavy production, backup vocals and piano.  I’m sure it will turn some old school fans off instantly.   But Samuel’s voice, as reserved as I always thought it was, manages to raise above the chaos and come through loud and clear…as strong as he’s never been.  It’s different, but it’s familiar.  The voice of a childhood friend who has changed during the many years apart.

Jason P. Woodbury couldn’t have said it better than he did on Tiny Mix Tapes ‘If The Shepherd’s Dog was Beam’s Swordfishtrombones, the album where a distinguished level of curiosity and adventurism added sharp edges of contrast to the songwriter’s established patterns, Kiss Each Other is his Rain Dogs, given fully to the new format — obtuse, dense, and, to the throngs of Starbucks sippers and tender-hearted Braffs, potentially alienating.’

I’m not going to provide a play-by-play on this album, I’ll just say that Iron & Wine have manged to put out a major label record that sounds like a major label record without selling-out what-so-ever.  It’s understandable that some fans will dislike this album and it’s understandable that some will think this is the best album yet.  I imagine it could be as polarizing (if not as experimental) as Sufjan‘s The Age of Adz.  For me, it was always Samuel‘s voice that drew me to Iron & Wine and it’s his voice that makes me stay.  I like this album, I like it more and more on every listen, but there will be those times when I want something  a little less produced, a little more raw, and those are the times I will pull out my old CDs from Lou’s Records.

Iron & Wine Walking Far From Home

Full Reviews:
A.V. Club
No Ripchord
Tiny Mix Tapes