Credit his intimately crafted rock a bye folk music for this, but Sam Beam is a musician his beard stroking fans think they know very well. When The Creek Drank the Cradle first dazzled in 2002, the album was the kind of solitary effort that coaxed the listener to imagine the grizzled Beam strumming his days away somewhere utterly perfect. A southern cabin, a Midwestern farm, perhaps even a nice and neat West Village loft; where ever his hay bailed guitar and voice was set to crackled analog tape could only have been ideal. Add the fact that 04’s Our Endless Numbered Days, while coated in more of a turtle wax shine, continued on in the same vintage vein, and Beam earned himself a sturdy as aged oak kind of legacy for years to come.
Yet, his first proper album in three years severely complicates that image. Titled The Shepherd’s Dog (Sub Pop), the simple soul that hid between the reels of his first two records is gone, and in its’ place is a man who knows he’s a little more worldly than he has been leading his fans on to believe. Opener “Pagan Angel and a Barrowed Car” casts the chordal roots listeners might be previously accustomed to aside in favor of gnarly sounding hooks. And like so many artists do when it is time to draw upon more expansive influences, Beam punctuates the track with eastern sounding touchups. Think “Norwegian Wood”…light. Clearly Beam is no stay at home folkie, but rather a globe trotting man, eager to dig his heals into a variety of genres. And so goes Beam, splashing through psychedelic puddles on “White Tooth Man”, kicking quasi-Caribbean and Zydeco palettes through “Love Song of the Buzzard”, pounding fiercely on drum kits and hand clap castanets on “Boy With a Coin”, wildly stomping around the campfire to the tune of improved harmonica, didgeridoo, and sun kissed, classical guitar on “House By The Sea”, and even trying his hand at rootsy reggae rhythms on “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)”.
It all adds up to a classic kind of turning point. Beam is no longer the front and center old man in a rocker, cooing for his listener’s attention, but rather a skin shedding veteran of his craft, pushing both production and musicality into new, sonically rewarding directions. Though “Carousel”, “Innocent Bones” and “Flightless Bird, Innocent Mouth” may sound a bit like a return to form, all and all, The Shepherd’s Dog is a record for the Iron and Wine fan willing to take an artistic jump along with Beam. – David Pitz