Iron & Wine
The Shepherd's Dog
Now that we've seen how the recycled costumes of psychedelia wear alternately thin and brash (Devendra Banhart) and how the forces of weedy collectivism can be united in the service of rawk (Akron/Family) we are left to find what is truly psychedelic on its own. My money was on Boredoms for being the new tie-dye torch bearers to Pied Piper us into the new dawn, but I've heard a leak of Super Roots 9, and they are digging a rut. It bears remembering where psychedelic rock really came from.: folk music. The People's Music got swept up in the light shows, got weird, tuned in , dropped out and became the 70s, for better or worse, taking plain sentiment and running it through the amplifier that is Bob Dylan. The wheel of time has a roughly thirty year circumference, and while many still agree with Pete Seeger, cutting the current on Dylan lest he ruin it for everyone, we are seeing the spoke of exploded folk music coming our way in the form of Iron & Wine's Sam Beam.
Sam Beam neatly has the folk side of things sewn up, having the dubious distinction of being the only folk singer, besides Dylan, that hipsters can stand. His voice came in on a warm breeze when his demo tape became the unforeseen sensation that The Creek Drank The Cradle became. Since then, he's been slowly building his sonic arsenal, first dispensing with the hiss on Our Endless Numbered Days", adding percussion on Woman King and finally a band proper (and no band is more proper than Calexico) on In the Reins.
The Shepherd's Dog is a further refinement/development of his sound with a pulling back from the excesses of his lark with Calexico. The record is still a channel cut by the relentless force of his quiet voice, eroding a path into your thinking as it flows into your ear, but the landscape of the riverbanks are now a dense thicket of organs, piano, percussion and Beam's infinite finger-picked guitar. Also befitting the cinematic nature of a great psychedelic folk record, and Beam's day job as a film professor, the graceful subdued hoedown "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car" creates a perfect opening credits sequence. "White Tooth Man" follows that song right down the rabbit hole, as his falsetto multi-tracked with his close gruff whisper levitates on a darkened bed of faux Indian music. Given its appearance throughout the record, I suspect Beam got a sitar for his birthday.
Folksingers, I find, are often at a loss as to what to use to fill in the holes when they decide to expand from their skeletal songcraft. Beam employs a number of timeworn techniques: sylvan atmospherics on "Carousel", the apparently unavoidable reggae dalliance on "Wolves (Song of the Shepherd's Dog)" and smoky Doors-y, sitar-enhanced trip-blues on "Peace beneath the City." Of all these guises, the last yearly wedges in best with Beam's mix of whispered psycho-sexual nothings and occasional cracks of the whip. It gives him a wide enough screen on which project his varied psychic terrain, ranging from timid mama's boy to scary loner. "Peace" makes a nice conclusion to the complicated and somewhat subliminal (I can never really hear his lyrics; for me they serve more as part of the sonic make-up suggesting a mood or image under the music's breath) story, with the closing credits issuing over the sweet canticle "Flightless Bird, American Mouth," fading to black under a rush of sentimental accordions and piano.
Catch a stream of this wild river at his myspace until the winds of marketing whisk it away.
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