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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Iron & Wine, Supersized

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It's ironic that one of the largest bands on the road this spring will be Iron & Wine, the group that began a decade ago as just one man, Sam Beam, making stripped-back, acoustic albums. Beam is still the songwriter and voice of Iron & Wine, but he has a lot of company on stage these days—nearly a dozen musicians in all, with a horn section and backing vocalists added to a six-piece band.

“It gets to be a big handful of people, but I think it's fun,” Beam says. “I do a lot of solo shows, and I enjoy that, too. But it's a lot more fun to play with other people. Also, I think it gives you more options when you're on the stage. You can have everyone stop playing and do a solo song, but then when you want to do a large arrangement, [the musicians] are there.”

As Beam hints with that comment, the Iron & Wine big band of 2011 is a direct reflection of the path his music has taken over the course of four studio albums.

After a pair of low-key, largely solo albums—the 2002 Iron & Wine debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, and 2004's Our Endless Numbered Days—Beam's approach began to expand when he teamed up with Calexico to make the 2005 EP In the Reins, on which Calexico applied its varied instrumentation and mix of Southwestern rock, Mexican and jazz music to a set of Beam's songs.

With 2007's The Shepherd's Dog, Beam began to add instruments and expand his arrangements, and he's taken that approach even further on his latest, Kiss Each Other Clean. Still, Beam is judicious enough with the instrumentation that many of the new tunes still connect back to the spare settings of the first two Iron & Wine records.

For instance, the new song “Walking Far From Home” has plenty going on, be it the eerie undercurrent created with its electronic-type hum and deliberate bass line or the ever-building harmonies, percussion and piano, but there is enough separation between instruments and enough intimacy to make it easy to imagine the song in a solo format.

The bigger twists on Kiss Each Other Clean come on songs such as “Tree By the River” and “Half Moon,” which take things in more of a pop direction with their easygoing vocal melodies, harmonies and bright vibes, or on “Big Burned Hand,” which has a Steely Dan-ish quality to its wacky saxophone line.

“Definitely, there's a bit more of an R&B quality to this one, especially with the horn section and the way the vocal arrangements are approached,” Beam says. “Rather than just straight vocal harmonies, like a circle of people singing, this is more like a vocal group. So that in itself, just those R&B little qualities, just those in themselves suggest a bit more of a pop element. And R&B suggests a lot of economy in the way they approach arrangements. They're generally short, concise arrangements.”

Taken together, the four Iron & Wine albums have earned Beam recognition as one of rock's most unique songwriters, often creating storytelling songs that are full of clever wordplay and intriguing and vivid imagery, with plenty of room for interpretation as to what the words mean.

For a guy who obviously possesses his share of musical gifts, Beam was something of a latecomer to music. He had already established a career teaching college cinematography in Miami and working as a filmmaker. Writing music and making demos was merely a part-time hobby in 2000, when his career took a turn.

That's when some recordings he had sent out caught the attention of Sub Pop Records. The label approached Beam about making a record, but Beam, who now has five daughters, had to consider his family obligations and his career in film in deciding whether to take on life as a touring recording artist.

“Like anybody else who makes music, it was a dream that you had to be able to make a living out of playing music,” says Beam, 36. “But the reality of building a career over time and what that would mean was a lot different than a dream. And I'd already had children at the time, so my responsibilities were a little bit different than if they [Sub Pop] had called me when I was 17 and said, 'Do you want to make records?' I would have said, 'Hell yes.'

“I still said 'hell yes,' but just slightly more under my breath, with hesitation,” he adds. “At the end of the day it just seemed like too good of a thing to pass up.”

Iron & Wine plays the Turner Hall Ballroom on Tuesday, June 7, at 8 p.m. with openers The Head & The Heart.


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