Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean
On 2007’s eclectic Shepherd’s Dog, the scruffy, soft-spoken Sam Beam (a.k.a. Iron & Wine) pronounced to the world that he is more than just a gentle voice singing you to sleep, but a shape-shifting musical force with plenty of room for growth. The South Carolina native and former film professor had made a name for himself in the first half of the decade for making beautifully poetic bedtime folk—some (including 2002’s Creek Drank The Cradle) of which he literally recorded in his bedroom. That approach was lauded, but many considered him a constricted artist in his bare bones approach. Conversely, Shepherd’s Dog expanded his sound by getting the most out of the studio, going electric, and exploring a number of world genres, from dub-reggae ( “Wolves”) to Spanish flamenco (“Boy With A Coin”). Four years and a solid b-sides compilation (2009’s Around The Well) later, Iron & Wine releases their major label debut (on Warner Bros.), Kiss Each Other Clean, which is a further expansion of Iron & Wine’s sound and another success.
Kiss Each Other Clean begins exceptionally with an opener that plays more like a closer: first single “Walking Far From Home.” It soars as Sam Beam’s croon sways beautifully in the repeating vocal melody over the sparse yet rising arrangement. While Kiss Each Other Clean in many ways compares to Shepherd’s Dog musically, it does have a few noteworthy distinctions. While Shepherd’s Dog explored a number of sounds and genres but remained organic, Kiss Each Other Clean often reaches for a funkier, more electronic direction. Sam Beam, at times, puts down his acoustic guitar and picks up a synthesizer like many of his fellow indie folk troubadours, though nowhere to the extent of what Sufjan Stevens did on Age Of Adz.
Kiss Each Other Clean is also enriched by a liberal use of saxophone and backing vocals leading to a funkier and jazzier overall sound. “Monkeys Uptown” is awesomely robotic electro-funk and “Big Burned Hand” is a heavy handed funk jam a la George Clinton’s Parliament. The abundant amount of backing vocals complement Beam’s voice on both Kiss Each Other Clean’s more explorative tracks like “Rabbit Will Run” and “Walking Far From Home.” But the backing vocals are especially evident on the more straight-laced Iron & Wine songs. “Tree By The River” and “Glad Man Singing” would stand as fairly forgettable if it wasn’t for the rousing vocals from Beam & the gang. “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me” finds the band channeling their inner Steely Dan before the song reaches its psychedelic implosion. Steely Dan stands as a good comparison for modern Iron & Wine, as the latter draws from numerous genres—primarily jazz—and employs excellent studio musicians and production wizardry. Though hopefully that doesn’t mean they will become your Dad’s new favorite band.
Lyrically, Beam remains sharp and sweet even if the lyrics don’t play out as traditionally poetic like his early work. "Me and Lazarus" has a fascinating take on the Biblical story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, but instead of focusing on his resurrection, Beam chooses to focus on Lazarus’s second chance and how he must have felt after the miracle. “He's an emancipated punk and he can dance/But he's got a hole in the pocket of his pants/Must be a symptom of outstanding circumstances.” “Half Moon” glistens as the sort of sweet pastoral folk that Beam has made for years, resting softly on a bed of billowy voices. “Godless Brother In Love” is a poignant tale about children who grow up and against their mother throughout the years. “She is money and tabs/That broken freedom in/See her big children burning rags by the riverside.”
One of my largest and maybe an unfair criticism of Kiss Each Other Clean has to do with not what is on the album but rather what missed the cut. Two of Iron & Wine’s most dynamic new songs were the unorthodox synth-pop of “Biting Your Tail” and the ferocious jazz rock of “Summer In Savannah,” both which were put on the “Walking From Home” single rather than Kiss Each Other Clean. While you can argue “Biting Your Tail” may have felt a bit out of place on Kiss Each Other Clean, “Summer In Savannah” would have worked as a perfect album centerpiece over than the menacing but tedious “Rabbit Will Run."
While it may not be quite as consistent or memorable as Shepherd’s Dog, Kiss Each Other Clean as a major label debut shows no concessions and is the first hope that 2011 will bring as many outstanding albums as 2010 left in our ears.