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Iron and Wine - The Shepherd's Dog

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Artist: Iron and Wine

Album: The Shepherd's Dog

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Sep. 25, 2007

The first four bars of The Shepherd’s Dog reveal as much about Iron and Wine’s latest record as they do the entire scope of Sam Beam’s creative output to date. A hollow guitar riff winds along metallically, as if being heard from the headphones of a brisk passerby, or the scattered mid-range of a forgotten AM radio speaker. The accompanying chatter of drumsticks clapping together in syncopation is so quaint that the intro to opener “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car” sounds like a tribute to Beam’s debut The Creek Drank the Cradle crammed into 15 seconds. The collage of textures hearkens back to the band’s nostalgia-laden sounds. Then a rim-struck snare breaks the murmur, and it’s evident that this dog knows a few new tricks.

Perhaps telegraphed by Beam’s 2005 collaboration with Calexico on In the Reins, his latest full-length is a move in the direction of more varied and complete instrumental arrangements. The songs on The Shepherd’s Dog move in comparatively longer brushstrokes, and they consequently cover more space. Iron and Wine are not known for their hugely varied chord progressions, yet the melodies manage to cover a fairly broad range of emotions. “Resurrection Fern” nods to one of the staples of Beam’s back catalogue, “The Trapeze Swinger,” with its sparsely poignant progression and lyrics that unfold like sepia-tinged photos scattered across the room: ”In our days, we will live / like our ghosts will live / pitching glass at the cornfield crows and folding clothes / like stubborn boys across the road / we’ll keep everything / grandma’s gun and the blackbear claw that took her dog.”

While Beam’s older work and The Shepherd’s Dog, share a similar essence, the latter is more than just a reworked version of the former with more instruments. There’s something more artistic to this work than the mere addition of bongos, pedal steel guitar, piano and banjos. With the exception of “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog),” whose rhythms dance a bit too close to a diluted psych/easy-listening amalgam, Iron and Wine seem conscious about allowing the instrumental palette to exist in service of the song rather than ornamentally so.

The fuller arrangements of The Shepherd’s Dog seem surprising within the context of Beam’s earlier work, but the elements of the style and compositional tendencies on display here have always been present. His beard-tickling-your-ear intimacy on Creek and the more amplified Woman King EP both had superb songwriting at their core. The Shepherd’s Dog elaborates on their contemplatively whispered vignettes in a surprisingly straightforward manner, shunning the allegorical shrouds employed in the past. The nostalgic innocence of his earlier work is checked by a darker tone on songs like “White Tooth Man,” where a slide guitar and a sitar refrains its misanthropic timbre beneath the racing lyrics, “And we all got sick on a strip club meal / While the statehouse was frying all the witches again.”

The Shepherd’s Dog is a step forward for Iron and Wine in many ways. The only moments where it falters are where the tonal characteristics gesture toward the past. When it shines, however, The Shepherd’s Dog’s clever songwriting and creative instrumentation makes for the most complete record Beam has ever recorded.

By Chris Tabron

Other Reviews of Iron and Wine

The Creek Drank the Cradle

The Sea & The Rhythm

Our Endless Numbered Days

Around the Well

Kiss Each Other Clean

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View all articles by Chris Tabron

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