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Iron and Wine: ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’

James Costa | Monday, January 28, 2008

In a marked change from its first few albums, Sam Beam’s band Iron and Wine has moved away from the hushed-lullaby song concept to a far more developed sound. In their latest, “The Shepherd’s Dog,” the band utilizes a strong percussion element to augment intricate arrangements of vocals and instrumentals.

Iron and Wine began as a one-man affair, Beam, who recorded bedtime songs for his son. Since then, Beam has added members and instruments to the band, with the progression seen clearly on the EP “Woman King” and 2005’s full band record “In the Reins,” which was a collaboration with Calexico.

The band received some recognition in 2004 after the film “Garden State” came to theaters. The film, starring Natalie Portman, featured the song “Such Great Heights,” a cover of the Postal Service song by the same name.

Ever conscious of the band’s simple origins, Beam began this album in a similar fashion. In “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car,” the recording is rough until the arrangement kicks in and a full instrumental sound takes over. Rattling along, the song pulls in the sounds of the acoustic slide guitar, the steel guitar and the tack piano.

The influences are wide-ranging, from Sufjan Stevens to Bruce Hornsby to the falsetto period of Bruce Springsteen. And it all sounds darkly delightful.

A more ambitious and intricate element of the album is Beam’s incorporation of international influences into his Americana focus. This is seen in the West African-inspired track “House by the Sea.”

Willing a spirit into the music that seems garnered straight from a night spent wandering through the coastal Senegalese city of Dakar, Beam begins with a wandering rhythmic pulse and then adds a haunting bass and woodwind section. It creates a feeling of evening darkness.

Another highlight of the album is the richly composed, almost Persian sounding, “White Tooth Man.” The song pounds along in a frantic, ominous passion, which contrasts with the eerie and mischievous “Boy with a Coin.”

As noted, the album is different from Iron and Wine’s previous offerings. It takes a few more listens to appreciate the extent of Beam’s latest effort.

Each song stands alone as an individual journey into the swelling emotions and ideas of the singer, which takes a bit of time to appreciate in its entirety. The final track, “Flightless Bird, American Mouth,” delivers a restrained end to a record that feels held in uncomfortable suspension for the preceding eleven tracks.

With a chilling use of Beam’s emotive voice, the song moves toward its final verse, asking “Have I found you? / Flightless bird, brown hair bleeding / Or lost you? / American mouth / Big bill, stuck going down.” In a tragically uplifting tone, the vocals bleed to silence as the music fades slowly behind, letting the record resolve itself into a quiet, if slightly wounded finish.

There isn’t a bad song on the disc, with each one offering a unique perspective into the mind of Beam and his talented collaborators as they bring us deep into the heart of the shepherd’s dog.