CD Review: Iron & Wine - Woman King
I was waiting for the perfect opportunity to arise to extol the virtues of one of my favorite styles of music, the EP. Originally an extended play single, it rose to prominence in the 80's so that the dance floor market could be breached with your otherwise not-so-dancey song, transformed by the magic of the Remix (generally entailing playing the song and then before the last verse, inserting some drum machine and synth washes elongating your thing in a matter that the girls can hit the floor, purse hanging from their elbow, cigarette in the other hand, and do the Eighties Sway.)
Fortunately, in the alternative music era that was the bastard step child of the college bong and disco, the postmodern filter was applied to this sub-par form and transformed it into a laboratory, where artists could make a mini-album, try things out without committing to a full turn of the ocean liner. Pavement was probably the band that really ran with this concept, making their 10,000 EP's just as interesting and whole as their albums were. Now, in the era of holistic commodity, an artist need not throw out their banjo and glockenspiel experiments, since the welcome arms of the EP were willing to accept it.
Iron & Wine (essentially Miami's Sam Beam, whisper-voiced folk mystic that invited himself into the collapsing castle of Sub Pop and released some of the absolutely best music of the past 5 years) has taken this tack on their recent EP Woman King. The hypothesis worked out on this one is: What happens if we augment the haunted pond of Beam's guitar work and hushed voice with this strange beast called "percussion?" The results are a raging success. His majestic songs still retain the folk/blues riverrun of his previous work but glow and flow with greater vigor. The title track opens with the blatant juggle of sticks of some kind, mixed with the sounds of knives being sharpened, making his spooky ghost of a songcraft even spookier. "Jezebel," which has been floating around for a while is given a Townes Van Zandt gravitas with its slow harpsichord pulse and second warm guitar. "Grey Gardens" makes excellent use of tambourine and ambient guitar, and the crown winner on the thing "Freedom Hangs Like Heaven" is a positively joyous romp with its biblical imagery and slide guitar and stomping drums. "In My Lady's House" has a fantastic groove to it giving way to a daydreaming piano and the final "Evening on the Ground (Lilith's Song)" invades you like the swarm of insects at the end of "One Hundred Years of Solitude." Pretentious reference on my part, to be sure, but I think it's apt here. Iron & Wine, with its still slight components compared to say, Hoobastank, casts into the wind the finest songs in an original voice.
I was afraid the move he made from the four-track to the studio with last year's ridiculously good Our Endless Numbered Days might open up a can of Losing Focus On What Makes You Good, but it is clear that he could go all Bjork on our asses and employ a band consisting of bugle and sewing machine, and it would still be the best thing out there.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com