CD Review of Around the Well by Iron & Wine
Iron & Wine: Around the Well
Recommended if you like
Lou Barlow, Ray LaMontagne,
Elliott Smith
Label
Sub Pop
Iron & Wine: Around the Well

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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W
hen Sam Beam made his debut as Iron & Wine with The Creek Drank the Cradle in 2002, his gentle, lo-fi songs were a welcome breath of fresh air – a sign that our long national nightmare of nü metal and TRL dance pop was coming to an end. Though certainly derivative of any number of famous folk artists – perhaps most notably Nick Drake, whose recent posthumous career renaissance certainly didn’t hurt Iron & Wine – Creek was painfully honest and demonstrably real in a way unlike just about anything else on the release schedule.

What soon became apparent, however, was that Beam’s sound was both his biggest asset and his main weakness; as refreshing as it was to hear the first time around, his fondness for hushed, double-tracked vocals and spare, slow arrangements became a parody of itself somewhere around the time Zach Braff’s "Garden State" soundtrack turned every fourth college student into a disaffected weenie with a closet full of hoodies and an artfully mussed hairdo. Though 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days certainly represented a leap forward from The Creek Drank the Cradle, the two albums were cut from virtually indistinguishable cloth – and it was fabric taken from a beige hoodie.

Iron and Wine

Fortunately for his long-term prospects as a recording artist, Beam has a restless streak as big as his beard; since putting out Days, he’s teamed up with Calexico for an ingratiatingly weird EP, In the Reins, and released the most sonically adventurous, fully realized Iron & Wine album to date, 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog. As much as these changes benefited Beam’s recordings, however, they were almost entirely cosmetic – strip away the new coats of paint, and his most recent songs aren’t terribly different from his earlier ones. Of course, you could say the same thing about a lot of artists, but it’s more noticeable with Beam; his songs occupy such a narrow slice of melodic bandwidth that it takes an inordinate amount of effort to separate them from one another.

And that’s the problem with Around the Well, the two-disc deck-clearing exercise that collects 23 Iron & Wine odds & sods. At a little over an hour and a half of music, it offers a lot of non-album material, and unless you’re a diehard Beam devotee, the overall effect is similar to being dragged to a museum against your will: everything is very pretty, but it all starts to blend together after awhile, and when it’s over, you’re a little annoyed at the people who took you there in the first place.

Still, even if it’s overkill, Well is a nice nod to the fans who have made Beam a not-quite household name. The first disc goes back to his roots, collecting 11 home recordings, including his cover of the Postal Service’s "Such Great Heights" for the "Garden State" soundtrack. It’s fine rainy day music, none of it ever rising much above a whisper, or the sound of fingers moving on strings; if you’re in the right mood for it, you may even get all the way to the end without falling asleep.

The second disc collects tracks of a more recent vintage, including the three songs Beam contributed to the "In Good Company" soundtrack and a cover of New Order’s "Love Vigilantes" that sounds, for better or worse, like something Beam could have written himself. Well’s back half is more polished than the first disc, but that isn’t the only difference – the songs often feel sunnier and more expansive, particularly when Beam doesn’t double-track his vocals, and the occasional subtle touch (a nifty fingerpicked solo here, some light electronics there) helps break up the suffocating placidity.

Ultimately, like most projects of this nature, Around the Well is strictly for the faithful, and while it may prove a satisfying addendum for fans that need to fill in absolutely every gap in their collections, it lumbers a little too slowly to stand on its own.

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