In his last release, 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog (one of my favorite albums of the Oughties), Sam Beam’s (aka Iron and Wine) voice was slightly muddy and back in the mix. Songs were very rhythmic but driven by handclaps, African drums, and percussively played acoustic guitar figures, rather than more traditional rock beats. The whole album had a lo-fi, folky churn to it, very much of a similar feel and mood.
His latest album, Kiss Each Other Clean, offers a more expansive sound, although based on the same musical roots. Beam’s voice is showcased to beautiful effect on several tunes, and standard drums create the rhythm on many song, often with a funky backbeat.
I expected something like The Shepherd’s Dog when album-opener “Walking Far From Home” starts with the same slightly muddy vocal treatment over a distorted instrument (almost sounds like a hurdy-gurdy!). Then the distortion drops, a piano takes over, and a soaring harmonized wordless background vocal begins to complement Beam’s gospel-flavored vocals on this single-verse/no chorus tune. At that point, barely 40 seconds into the album, it’s obvious this album is different.
The album offers a lot of musicial diversity, from the poppy “Tree By the River” to the African-inflected “Monkeys Uptown” to the sax honking on the funky “Big Burned Hand.” “Godless Brother in Love” is a beautiful showcase for Beam’s voice over a simple piano figure and delicately plucked harp. Many tunes on the album (as with the opener) feature beautiful Beach Boys-like wordless harmonies.
Although I’m not familiar with Iron & Wine’s first two albums, and so only have the Shepherd’s Dog for comparison, I suspect the changes on Kiss Each Other Clean will be a bit much for some long-time fans. Call it a hunch but it seems every time a band changes its sound at all, a certain number of existing fans are upset. I, for one, love to see bands evolve. I don’t want to hear the same album over and over again. By this yardstick, this latest Iron & Wine offering is a natural and well-executed evolution. The songwriting remains very strong, and the change in sound and instrumentation complements these songs perfectly. A very strong album.