Iron and Wine, The Shepherd’s Dog

It has probably been a couple of years since I first heard the name “Iron and Wine”, but it has only been recently that I have managed to find a suitable juncture to investigate the American folk rock artist’s work further. Iron and Wine is, of course, the stage name for Sam Beam, who has released three studio albums in the last five years. I have heard a couple of tracks from his first two albums along the way, but it is his most recent album, The Shepherd’s Dog which I have managed to lay my hands on first. Although 2008 is of course still extremely young, this is the album that has been on rotation on my iPod the most so far this year.

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Beam’s silvery, whispered tones together with some neat guitar playing dominate the album to good effect. Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car kicks off the album with a burst of happy-go-lucky fun, with some strings and what sounds suspiciously like a xylophone adding to the tune’s easy rhythm. The next few tracks are somewhat more downbeat and melancholic, culminating with the catchy House By The Sea. Beam’s playful guitar combines well with what seems to be something of a fable put to music:

There is a house by the sea
Two jealous sisters, they’re waiting for me
And one is laid on the floor
And one is changing the locks on the doors 

A triplet of strong cuts then sets the tone for the rest of the album. Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog) is a fitting title track, even if it sticks out a bit like a sore thumb. The bass line is more funky than folksy, and the tune represents a fairly strong but interesting departure from the rest of the material on the album. The title track leads into Resurrection Fern, a triumph of a mid-paced singalong packed with wistful lyrics like these:

And we’ll undress beside the ashes of the fire
Both our tender bellies bound in baling wire
All the more a pair of underwater pearls
Than the oak tree and its Resurrection Fern 

Which in turn leads into Boy With A Coin, the album’s first single and one of its more edgy tracks, with a guitar arpeggio and some rhythmic handclapping running like a thread throughout. From there on, Beam delivers a grab-bag of everything; The Devil Never Sleeps runs with the pace of a old-time locomotive in its smile-inducing attempt to do honky-tonk, and the aptly named Peace Beneath The City is easily the most sedentary track on the album. The final track, Flightless Bird, American Mouth is a masterpiece of waltzing pop nostalgia, and a perfect way to wrap things up with Beam’s best vocal performance yet:

I was a quick wet boy, diving too deep for coins
All of your street light eyes wide on my plastic toys
Then when the cops closed the fair, I cut my long baby hair
Stole me a dog-eared map and called for you everywhere 

In short, this album comes with my strong recommendation. Not having delved into Iron and Wine’s earlier works, I can really comment on whether his latest album is the best place to get acquainted. Having said that, I’m fairly confident if you pick this one up that you will, like me, quickly get interested in prowling Sam Beam’s back catalogue for more rare gems like some of the songs featuring on this album.