CD Review of The Shepherd’s Dog by Iron & Wine
Recommended if you like
Nick Drake, Ray LaMontagne,
Elliott Smith
Label
Sub Pop
Iron & Wine:
The Shepherd’s Dog

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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F
ive years ago, Iron & Wine was just a name; the “band” was really only Florida professor Sam Beam, a singer/songwriter whose impossibly gentle melodies and lovely, multi-tracked harmonies found their way to the national marketplace at just the right time. By taking classic folk-pop tropes and wrapping them in a hipster-friendly cocoon, Beam won converts in and out of the Pitchfork crowd; his acoustic ballads were a perfect fit for, say, the “In Good Company” soundtrack – pretty enough for James Taylor-loving moms, but melancholy enough to draw the Nick Drake revivalist crowd, too.

Beam probably could have gone on releasing low-fi collections of softly plaintive lullabies for suburban college kids indefinitely, but to his credit, he’s always been a much more restless artist than his first couple of albums might have indicated. It started subtly at first, but Iron & Wine’s story is one of gradual addition; 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days added some studio polish to Beam’s trademark bedroom ambience, and 2005’s In the Reins – a collaborative EP with Calexico – pushed the boundaries even further, entering the Iron & Wine sound into a surprisingly comfortable arranged marriage with Calexico’s unwieldy, dust-covered experimentalism.

Two years later, The Shepherd’s Dog makes In the Reins seem almost staid by comparison; each of the album’s 12 songs represents a new step in a different direction. Beam’s songs are the same at their core – indie-folk melodies, light percussion, and always those multi-tracked vocals – but what he’s done around them may surprise longtime fans. Though cuts such as “Resurrection Fern” are more or less in line with expectations, the bulk of the record finds Beam running across newly expansive sonic vistas. For the first time, Iron & Wine actually sounds like a real band, and there are hints of damn near everything in here – funk, reggae, Lanois-ish atmosphere, country, even rock – but throughout, the songs are sweetly, resolutely uniform, which ultimately keeps the whole thing pleasantly grounded.

The easy knock on the album is that, in broadening his palette so forcefully, Beam has opened himself up to charges of gimmickry – or, worse, blunted his songs’ emotional impact. Really, though, he was damned either way; as any of your high school girlfriends probably could have (and probably did) tell you, unabashed sensitivity, no matter how sincere, gets awfully boring after a while. Beam’s lyrics remain as frustratingly non-linear as ever – and those vocal stacks still have a numbing effect after awhile – but even if it fails as a compelling statement, per se, The Shepherd’s Dog is a darkly charming piece of work. Can’t wait to see where he goes from here.

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