Recording of March 2004: Our Endless Numbered Days
Sub Pop 630 (CD). 2004. Sam Beam, Brian Deck, prods., engs. AAD? TT: 44:49
No one in this big modern new century refers to a solo performer with an acoustic guitar as a "folk" musician. Folk music, which was originally music from the hills or the delta, became in the Sixties a popular music dominated by two strains, entertainment (Peter, Paul and Mary) and politics (Phil Ochs).
Today's "folk" singers are all about entertainment. They've lost the urge to write protest songs—but then, with the environment degrading, the deficit ballooning, and American soldiers dying daily, there's really nothing to protest, is there? Contemporary singer-songwriters have also added all sorts of computerized bandmates, and in general have been drowned out by volume and commerciality. "Folk music" also used to mean people had to listen; and sadly, today that commodity is in short supply.
Like every other genre today, folk music has also evolved into a collection of subgenres. There are alt-solo acts such as Evan Dando; more country-tinged solo acts, such as Greg Brown or Bobby Bare Jr., that are lumped together under the catch-all "Americana"; and keyboard-derived, urban folk from such players as Shawn Colvin. Now there's the shaggy, left-field, he's-from-Miami (?), folk of Floridian Sam Beam, who records under the name Iron and Wine.
Since the 2002 release of his debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle (and a subsequent five-song EP of material recorded at the same time, The Sea & the Rhythm), the chatter around about Beam's quiet brand of Nick Drake meets Neil Young meets Will Oldham folkiness has been considerable. The ironic-appreciative among us will note that Beam's success has come on Sub Pop, the label built by the flannel shirts and loud guitars of grunge. But his alliance with the now-venerable Seattle label has given Beam a sheen of cool he wouldn't otherwise have. If he were on a label liable to release folk records of some sort—Rounder and Red House come to mind—he'd never have been seen as being edgy. Then again, those labels would have probably seen his music as too far out, not traditionally folky enough, so maybe everything is as it should be.
Nothing Beam does is revolutionary in the slightest. While he's added female vocals courtesy of his sister Sara, as well as minimal instrumental support from half a dozen other players, all of whom stay so deep in the background you're hardly aware they're there, this is basically one man with his acoustic guitar and his songs. Beam sings song-stories full of love and big subjects like, say, the sea (yes, I too once felt an urge to gag, but bear with me), with earnest, soft, double-tracked vocals and guitar picking and/or strumming. A banjo is often overdubbed for spice.
"Naked As We Came," in which Beam plaintively sings about how he wants to "spread our ashes around the yard," is followed by the hopalong, banjo-assisted guitar rhythms of "Cinder and Smoke," in which ashes again appear ("With ash in your mouth / You'll ask it to burn again"), and the choruses are wordless legato hums. Not exactly sad, the mood here is contemplative. In a tune like "Sunset Soon Forgotten," Beam even breaks into what might be called a quiet, darkly beaming sort of joy. In several tunes, the rhythms are more complex. "Teeth in the Grass," for example, rides a plucked banjo rhythm that sounds almost Japanese.
The usual first reaction to Beam's music is a shrug of the shoulders and "It's nice," which in this case is not an insult. Always treading perilously close to being too precious and too sensitive, the stuff is irresistibly evocative and beautiful. While "beautiful" may sound mundane, Beam pulls it off—his fragile songs are beguilingly tuneful.
He's also riding the "weird factor." His soft music and Grizzly Adams appearance, have furrowed brows across the musical landscape. "Who is this guy?" is what's inspiring the buzz and selling his records. In the near future, the danger of making music that's too much of the same thing, that doesn't evolve beyond the original idea—what's happened to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings?—looms large and potentially fatal. The addition of drums to "Free Until They Cut Me Down," and the fact that Beam has in the past toured with a full band, may be harbingers of his way forward. But at the moment, unabashedly beautiful, well-crafted songs such as "Each Coming Night" are a breath of, if not fresh, then unexpected air.
One happy new development already in place with Iron and Wine: what was once strictly a lo-fi project has now discovered the pleasures of being well-recorded. Where once there was only muddy, DYI coolness, there is now the sound of breathy, almost whispered vocals and fingers scraping against guitar strings as they change chords.—Robert Baird