Tuesday, January 15, 2008

steel and whiskey

I'm trying something new- inspired in part by my awesome, totally bad-ass writer friend Hans, who runs a smashing little critical review blog by the name of Hallucina- in which I review some of my favorite albums. It's a little exercise in music criticism that I hope will not only be fun, but also good for me. Like candy.

First up: Iron & Wine's The Shepherd's Dog, given to me by the wise and wonderful Ms Katie who in turn purchased the album after having heard a little of I&W on my 2006 holiday mix. Full circles are fun!

Iron & Wine is actually one dude named Sam Beam, and he has a beard. We all know that by now (QC did a joke that the band consisted of Sam and his beard once). Beards are great. Hurray for beards! They make you into an awesome musical force.

(Steel and Whiskey is a joke my friend Chris made about Iron & Wine. Oddly enough, it reminded me of being on swim team in middle school when the movie 'Iron Will' came out, and my swim coach, wanting to spin off a Disney movie's inherently optimistic and inspiring message, decided our season's motto was 'Steal Desire'. Coincidence? Yeah, sure.)

Anyway, I&W makes the kind of music I never knew I thought existed but once I hear fits neatly into a little place in my musical soul. It's a little bit how I felt about The Decemberists and their kooky blend of seafaring themed, pre WWII era British indie rock. The Decemberists never fail to make me think I'm listening to Charles Dickens' awesome garage band with Mary Poppins on lead guitar. I&W, on the other hand, has this folky, Southern style that is like being a road trip with John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and Dave Eggers. It's all romantic and pretty, but with this literacy and undercurrent of religion which weaves the whole musical product into something else entirely. I find it impossible to describe, but nevertheless, I shall try. Here are a few of the things I like about The Shepherd's Dog:

-Sam's melodies are really simple. The change in inflection and ornamentation is never too great, yet they handily manage to sweep prettily across the complex underlying accompaniment. There's a lot more of that in this from, say, The Creek Drank the Cradle, and it's nice. Very sassy.

-His lyrics are...I...wow. I dunno. I mean, you get stuff like this:
Love was a promise made of smoke
In a frozen copse of trees
A bone cold and older than our bodies
Slowly floating in the sea

and then this:
Dreaming again that its freezing and my mother’s in her flowerbed
(Long dead rows of daffodils and marigolds)
Changing her face like a shadow on the gravel, this is what she said,
(Blood on my chin, still chewing on a red rose)
“No one lives forever and the devil never sleeps alone”
Everybody bitching, “There’s nothing on the radio”

Talk about a talent for words.

-God. Whatever the meaning behind I&W's lyrics with Christian references (I haven't taken the time to really examine them, at this point I'm too caught up in all the subtle beauty), he paints this portrait of God as a more mythical, ancient creature. I like the line from "Boy With A Coin" best:
Girl with a bird she found in the snow
that flew up her gown, and that's how she knows
that God made her eyes for crying at birth
then left the ground to circle the earth

It speaks to me of a religious upbringing conducted in little country churches, rough wooden pews and pane-less windows, leaving after service to a green, open world full of magic. Yet layered on top of this is a veneer of bitterness that twists the spirituality, just so, and that little country church is just another run-down building next to a repair garage in a muddy, brown town. You don't forget the wholesomeness of the other image, but you can't ever quite reach it again.

-The way his women characters play into his stories fulfills a kind of fantasy I have always had, that there are men out there writing songs for the mysterious goddesses among them, and yet maintaining a strong belief in their own independence and strength. The fantasy of course continues that someday this kind of person will encounter me in a field underneath a tree and find me so terribly enchanting he writes a song about honeybees.

"The Shepherd's Dog" is by far one of the best albums of 2007. On top of that, it makes me smile just to listen to it. It's. So. Good. So good. So painfully, amazingly good I've been listening to it for days on end and I still haven't managed to find one thing to get sick of. I may be completely wrong about all of my hypotheses into Sam's obviously complex psyche, but then again, like I said, I haven't done my research. The music is good enough for me.

I'll leave you with this:

"Innocent Bones"
Cain got a milk-eyed mule from the auction
Abel got a telephone
And even the last of the blue-eyed babies know
That the burning man is the color of the end of day
And how every tongue that gets bit always has another word to say

Cain bought a blade from some witch at the window
Abel bought a bag of weed
And the even the last of the brown-eyed babies see
That the cartoon king has a tattoo of a bleeding heart
There ain't a penthouse christian that wants the pain or the scab, but they all want the scar
How every mouth sings of what it's without so we all sing of love
And how it ain't one dog who's good at fucking and denying who he's thinking of

Cain had the captive boy leap off the rooftop
Abel had his papa pray
And even the last of the black-eyed babies say
That every saint has a chair you can borrow in a church to sit on
That the wind blows cold across the back of a master and the kitchen help
There's a big ball of innocent bones still holding up the garden wall
And it was always the broken hand we learned to lean on after all
How God knows if Christ came back he'd find us in a poker game
After finding out the drinks were all free but they won't let you out the door again