When it was released in '02, Iron and Wine's stunning debut The Creek Drank the Cradle planted a modest, wooded image of a stay at home folk singer; one that, if like me, most fans have had trouble shaking over the years. Never mind the crisp, studio sheen of Our Endless Numbered Days. Or the more exploratory nature of his last release, The Shepherd's Dog. Sam Beam - at least in my mind, and probably yours - remains who he was when first we met through a mix tape, way back when. Except he hasn't, and his latest release doesn't cease to challenge that notion.
Comprised of a collection of out-of-print and never-before-released tunes, Around the Well spans Beam's entire career, and comes neatly packaged in two discs. The first of this double bonus is an assortment of home recordings, thereby feeding those - again, myself included - still clinging to the notion that the man never leaves what can only be the coziest of home recording confines. Highlights include the curiously titled "Peng! 33", with its' simple time, steady clapping rhythm, and whispered prose about incredible things happening in the world. "Waiting For Superman" sounds awfully familiar in its' hushed tones. Oh...that's because it's a Soft Bulletin era, Flaming Lips cover. And "Such Great Heights", Beam's tribute to the Postal Service, also gets a re-release of sorts.
Most alluring, however, is Around the Well's second helping, mainly because its' here where long time listeners really get the chance to appreciate the scope of Beam's metamorphosis over the years. "Belated Promise Ring", calling to mind the best of Endless Numbered Days, is crisp and light; its' gobs of standup bass and piano providing pillows for which Beam to lay never-learn-nothin' lines like "There's a bug inside the thimble, there's a band aid on her thumb" ever so gracefully upon. It goes this way for a few choice tracks ( "God Made the Automobile", "Homeward These Shoes", a cover of New Order's "Love Vigilantes"), until songs like the percussive swagger of "Serpent Charmer" and "No Moon" signal yet another move towards the more fragmented and rhythmic style of his most recent work. An impressive transformation unfolding before your very ears over the course of only a few songs...
But perhaps no song demonstrates our musician's versatility more than "Kingdom of the Animals". In what could very well be a nod to Iron and Wine's future (we won't know until album number #4 comes out sometime next Spring), Beam whisks a sweet country slurp with parlor room piano, wisps of peddle steel, weird electronic piano parts, honky tonk twang, and just a touch of gospel glory. Yes, all prophesying is speculation, of course. But the songs signals a continuing strive for new musical aesthetics; a move further and further away from the artist we came to know many moons ago, but just fine nonetheless. After all, it assures that folks like you and I will continue to be able to gather around Iron and Wine's well for many years to come. - David Pitz