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Iron and Wine - The Creek Drank the Cradle

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Artist: Iron and Wine

Album: The Creek Drank the Cradle

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Oct. 28, 2002

Make Room for a New Four-Track Hero

Iron & Wine is the name cinematography teacher Sam Beam goes by when putting his hushed folk music – plaintive vocals and some guitar and banjo – to four-track. And given those vitals it might be difficult to believe that a formula so familiar and, in far too many cases, so tired can still result in one of the most satisfying records of the season. The fact is, though, that it has. The Creek Drank the Cradle is one of those records that a century's worth of guitar plucking and lullaby humming somehow hasn't robbed of anything. One can recognize in it the faint resonance of old 78s, Neil Young at his most quietly clairvoyant, or Elliott Smith filtered through a rusty screen door. But in the lulling midst of Iron & Wine's humble debut one never feels the inclination to reach for these other sounds instead, or to even draw anything other than a passing reference to them. Which it seems to me, in 2002, is a lot to say about any record of this ilk but still not enough to say about The Creek Drank the Cradle.

One of the album's overt preoccupations is with animals, and they're examined with a child's sense of wonder and association. For Beam, love hides in lion manes, cuckolding men swoop down like birds stealing bread, and worry slinks like a snake in the creek bed. But these things eclipse metaphor, existing as parts of a tangible patchwork of birds and beasts, hard times and good, all unfolding in an immediate southern landscape. In "Faded From Winter", a gently autumnal guitar melody carries Beam's voice as if on a gust of wind – only very quietly and self-effacingly there at all – as he attempts to unravel the secrets of a family member, "a poem of mystery / the prayer inside me", by way, in part, of the dog sleeping on the floor beside them. It's one of many cases in which every word feels purposeful, and the mentioned texture of "needlework and seedlings" offsets perfectly the wonderful overdubbed harmony of Beam's vocals. Because he very smartly doesn't perceive the need to overstep and add flourish to his rudimentary approach, Beam concentrates very skillfully on the cadence of each word, the resonant twang of each note, and affects in a way that too many miss in over-reaching.

Songs late in the album possess a dark melancholy reminiscent of Nick Drake, but with their roots deep in native soil. "Angry Blade" begins much like a Drake song – long, beyond-the-dead whispers of "who left you so?" – but is augmented by an eerily picked Appalachian banjo. "Upward over the Mountain," a song about leaving home and family, is built on a patient guitar line that draws one in with its repetition and Beam's lyrical images – "Mother remember the night that the dog had her pups in the pantry / Blood on the floor and the fleas on their paws" – and an apt bit of slide guitar. "Sons are like birds," Beam concludes quietly, "flying always over the mountain."

The Creek Drank the Cradle is the sort of record I had hoped Damien Jurado might follow his beautiful Ghost of David with, and while that was unfortunately not the case, Sub Pop has managed to deliver anyway, providing this seemingly out-of-nowhere collection of quiet masterpieces from Beam's Iron & Wine. With Mark Kozelek now on their roster, and Mark Lanegan and The Pernice Brothers still kicking around, Sub Pop continues its impressive renaissance in the sparse, heart-tugging mode. Somebody please amalgamate these sons of rest, and maybe coax Rebecca Gates back from wherever she's been hiding for some duets? Regardless, this album is one of the fall season's musts.

By Nathan Hogan

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Our Endless Numbered Days

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