Monday, December 17, 2007

The best album of 2007: The Shepherd's Dog

Because it's the end of the year, everyone needs to do an end of the year list. My list is one record. I thought to go on a rant about AV Club's list of the best records, as I have done to friends this past week, but I won't. Instead, I'll use AV Club -- probably my favorite site on the Web -- as the RS surrogate.

Band: Iron and Wine
Album: The Shepherd's Dog
Why AV Club gets it right: Sam Beam's transformation is striking, as he fills out the classic Iron and Wine sound (whispery vocals and arpeggiated guitar) on the third proper album for the band. It spans genre while still keeping I&W's sound (tough to accomplish, certainly), yet builds on said sound completely.
Why AV Club gets it wrong: not to get too deep into my problems with the list, but if someone really thinks the Wilco record is better than "The Shepherd's Dog," I think that person really needs to rethink his or her views on music.
Best song: "The Boy with a Coin" is brilliant.
Worst song: "The Devil Never Sleeps" is the worst song on the record and it's still better than 99% of songs I hear.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

When I was in high school and college, I would make year-end lists. This was -- mostly -- a pre-blog world, so I would simply post them on a Web site (yes, kids, we had Web sites before Blogger), I'd e-mail them to friends or I'd do a radio show about them. Being on radio for eight years was really a nice venue for that sort of thing.

I stopped doing this when I graduated college. The reasoning is pretty simple: I don't get to hear as much new music as I did while in college. While a DJ, I listened to the station nonstop. As Program Director all the music we got passed through my desk. So, at the very least, I'd heard of something and most likely, I would have heard a few songs on the station. All of this was free.

Now? Not so much. I rely on Pitchfork for bands I don't already know, and even then, I don't fully trust their reviewers. I can't afford buying tons of new records, because I have bills to pay. I'm late on everything and I mostly just buy records from bands I liked on graduation day.

(I know, I know. No one wants to hear my complain about being an adult. It's part of growing up. You stop knowing underground culture and you're supposed to settle down, breed, etc.)

My point is this: I don't think I could write a good year-end list, because I mostly buy records I know I'm going to enjoy. I obtain a lot of music (I spend a lot of money on iTunes, I am an eMusic subscriber, etc.), but it's not like I have people trying to convince me to like something -- that's what promo people do to radio station PDs.

Instead, I have a list of bands I like a lot and when they come out with records, I get them. This is good most of the time, but can be horribly disappointing other times; The new Wilco album is ass, despite what AV Club says.

Which brings us to this record. The AV Club's 25th selection rounds out the bottom of their top albums of the year. Again, I can't speak to about half the albums on the list, but I can say this: "The Shepherd's Dog" totally blew me away. That, in and of itself, is enough for me to call it my favorite album of 2007.

That's not to disparage any of the other records I really enjoyed this year (the Radiohead, Kanye West and Arcade Fire albums, for example). But, "The Shepherd's Dog" continues an arc that Sam Beam has followed for his last four releases and may -- hopefully not -- have reached its pinnacle.

Iron and Wine is probably most known from the "Garden State" soundtrack on which Beam (the main songwriter and performer in I&W) covered The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights." Beam's voice on that track is essentially perfect for the song, a track recounting the tenderness of young love. Beam's vulnerability is nothing if not endearing and his easy guitar picking deconstruct the original version's beeping and booping.

Nevertheless, the simplicity of I&W's early records -- like "Such Great Heights," I&W's first two albums have little outside of guitar and Beam's whispery vocals -- has turned into full-on experimentation within song structure and arrangement on "The Shepherd's Dog." In lieu of simple guitars and banjos, Beam brings different styles of basses and guitars and even uses a Dijiredoo on the record.

A lot of critics have cited I&W's work with Calexico on the bands' 2005 EP in their reviews of the record. Certainly, "In The Reins" is a brilliant album, combining two of my favorite modern groups. But, the idea that Beam simply got together with Calexico and decided to start using tons of quirky percussion and piano on his next record is, needless to say, silly.

Especially when you look at the pre-"Shepherd's Dog" highlight of I&W's discography, 2005's "Woman King" EP. On the record, Beam exhibits two things: The ability to lyrically work within a theme (the strong female being the theme) and the ability to arrange for a bull band. "Woman King" is mostly straightforward in its folk-rock styling, but the addition of extra guitars and percussion into the mix was a huge departure from Beam's Nick Drake imitation, but proved -- in my mind, as least -- to be his most effective. This was, of course, pre-Calexico collaboration.

Nevertheless, "The Shepherd's Dog" takes Beam's newfound (maybe?) skill to a totally different level. Instead of simply following a folk rock template, Beam switches, mixes and genre-hops.

What's so striking about this diversity of sound is that "The Shepherd's Dog" remains decidedly an I&W record. Beam doesn't try to be Calexico -- as some reviewers would suggest -- but rather works African musical motifs into his normal sound ("The House by the Sea") or uses musical onomatopoeia ("Carousel"). Even in subtle instance, where Beam simply accents his normal sound the result is striking. "Resurrection Fern" is considerably fuller than anything on "The Creek Drank the Cradle" or even "Our Endless Numbered Days." Beam even channels his inner rockabilly star on "The Devil Never Sleeps." Despite being the weakest song on the record, it's still remarkably good and something of a revelation to hear Beam's voice doubled and singing over a rollicking piano. "Wolves (Song of the Shepherd's Dog)" and "Lovesong of the Buzzard" are two animal-ased songs that move; The former being more sensual while the latter a pure strange-rhythm rocker.


As is my failing as a writer, I can't even coherently write about the album's lead single, "The Boy With A Coin." The song, in a bizarre time signature I still don't really understand, is based around a start/stop acoustic guitar line (again, it's a decidedly I&W album). The lyrics are typically Beam, describing two children, the curiosity of human existence and the wonder with which we see the world.

The slide guitar work (OK, I give, some stuff he probably picked up from Calexico) accents the song without making it sound a country number. The several atmospheric guitar lines -- nothing more than a note or two extended -- fill the background with weight.

The song has no real chorus, save for Beam singing "hey" and "yeah" in his near-perfect voice and the crazy rhythm gets clapping as an accent.

(When I saw I&W in the fall, it was pure hilarity to watch the crowd try and clap along.)

Again, I have a fair amount of trouble explaining just exactly why "The Boy With A Coin" is so great. It just kind of is.


I guess one story I could tell is this: I pre-ordered the album without hearing much of "The Boy With A Coin" (as much as I love Pitchfork, I don't pay attention when they post songs on the Forkcast, as they did with the single). When I got the record home and listened to it, I fell in love with the record and had to tell someone. The problem? None of my friends -- well, none of my friends with whom I correspond often -- are really I&W fans. I imagine none of them have heard enough of I&W.

So, what did I do? I e-mailed a friend I hadn't spoken to, in, I think, six months. Maybe longer? I don't know. The entire e-mail:

Subject: Because I need to tell someone...

Body: ...And you're the only other Iron & Wine fan I know, you should really get the new album, "The Shepherd's Dog." It's wonderful. Like, amazing, ridiculously wonderful.

Here's the lead single:

OK, that's all. I hope you're doing well, otherwise.

Because, really, what else can you say, right?


Allmusic says it well:

By the end of the record, you may feel a few pangs for the discarded, sparse sound of early Iron & Wine, but the beauty and majesty of The Shepherd's Dog will pave right over them, and you should be able to enjoy the masterful songcraft, inspired performance, and note-perfect production with no guilt and a fair bit of awe.

That's exactly it: The sparseness of I&W's earlier records is gone and that's a great thing. The word "awe" is used and I couldn't think of a better term.

When I ordered the record, I was hoping for a good album. When I received it and listened, I was fully blown away. I haven't been that surprised by a record in a while. It surpassed every high expectation I had for it.

1 comment:

fft said...

My favorite in 2007: LCD Soundsystem. Didn't think it would be but I love it.