Pop Addict: Iron and Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean

Every Thursday, Pop Addict presents infectious tunes from contemporary musicians across indie rock, pop, folk, electronica, and more.

Iron and Wine: Kiss Each Other CleanIron and Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean (Warner Bros., 1/25/11)

Iron and Wine: “Walking Far from Home”
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When Iron and Wine made its debut in 2002 with underground sensation The Creek Drank the Cradle, it immediately became apparent that there was something special at hand. The album — anchored by lo-fi acoustic finger-picking set to Sam Beam’s hushed, harmonized vocals — featured no bells and whistles.  It remains a blunt testament of Beam’s humble offerings as a songwriter and the splendor that he can achieve through it.  Today, when listening to the album, you still get the feeling that the songs were written by Beam while he sat on the front porch of a ramshackle home, located on a dirt farm somewhere down south, singing “Upward Over the Mountain” as the late summer sun sets beyond the horizon.

After releasing the similarly arranged The Sea and the Rhythm EP in 2003, Beam moved forward with a slightly varied approach. However, while 2004 album Our Endless, Numbered Days reintroduced Iron and Wine to the indie world through cleaner production and subtly varied instrumentation, Beam’s uncanny ability to write a song so straightforward yet elegant was still intact. Elements of The Creek Drank the Cradle still shined through, and it seemed that Beam was the new Elliott Smith, the new tender soul, the new whipping boy who endured the battlements of love and loss.

But after three straight years of supplying listeners with remarkable song craftsmanship and an unparalleled dulcet voice, Iron and Wine reemerged in 2005 with the Woman King EP — and something had changed. No longer was Beam content with the hushed, folk-ridden lullabies that he had crafted so perfectly in the previous few years. Instead, he was determined to make noise, to make you notice him. In 2007, The Shepherd’s Dog confirmed this, featuring drums and a barrage of percussion, electronic effects, keyboards, flanged vocals, jangly pianos, and a number of other tricks. It was as if Beam were trying to prove that he wasn’t a one-trick pony — that he could be just as experimental as he could melodic.

Now, with Kiss Each Other Clean — the band’s first major-label effort since leaving native indie label Sub Pop — Beam has written another chapter in the ever-evolving songbook of Iron and Wine. If The Shepherd’s Dog’s purpose was to marry Beam’s old-world folk hymns with his more experimental, stylized jamborees, then Kiss Each Other Clean is his attempt to abandon his roots entirely.

The album picks up where The Shepherd’s Dog left off and doesn’t look back — ever. From the onset, it’s apparent that this will not be a typical Iron and Wine album. Though the opening track, “Walking Far From Home,” features a confident, catchy melody at the forefront, always so prevalent in Beam’s songs, the vocals are flanked by fuzz, piano, spacey harmonies, drums, keyboards, and fizzling digital effects—a far cry from a band that started out with one man and an acoustic guitar.

And the album only gets more diverse from there. “Monkeys Uptown” features an Of Montreal-esque bass line paired with strange sound effects, percussion, xylophone, and an electric-guitar solo; “Big Burned Hand” features a clownish saxophone, a rock organ, and hokey keyboard effect akin to Super Furry Animals; and “Rabbit Will Run,” featuring a recorder and a variety of tribal drumming, sounds like a stripped-down experimental collaboration with Four Tet. But perhaps the most interesting aspect is that, in addition to the band’s new-found love for experimentation, there is scarcely an acoustic guitar present on the album at all.

Aside from a few tracks, Beam has abandoned the instrument completely. The bright side, though, is that he is able to orchestrate his lovelorn song structures and melodies by other means. With a barrage of instruments present at all times throughout each track, Beam has left no room for the simple sanctity on which his songs were once founded. Instead, he has taken those delicate melodies to a higher level, as it is apparent that he’s trying to achieve something bigger, something better, something magnificent. (Perhaps that’s why he jumped from an indie label to a major one.)

Fans might want to think of this as Iron And Wine’s The Age of Adz. (Beam even drops an F-bomb, just as Sufjan Stevens did, to the shock of loyal fans). And like Stevens’ unique songwriting tendencies that are still being displayed on his latest effort despite the drastic change in approach, Beam’s gift for writing and arranging quality tunes is able to shine through all the digital ornamentation and multi-instrumental adornment.

When you strip these songs down, it’s very likely that Beam originally crafted them on an acoustic guitar, just like the old days. On a track like “Tree By The River,” you’re able to understand that the original Iron and Wine is still at the heart of each song. Kiss Each Other Clean is the antithesis of where Iron and Wine once stood; it is the anti-Creek Drank the Cradle. But to Beam’s credit, he’s made all the right moves.  A band should evolve, not remain static, and this latest effort is certainly a sign of that. It should be interesting to see where Beam takes his brainchild from here.

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