Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean

By Jon Stone | @jwstone - January 25, 2011

Most of us are familiar with the anticipation and frequent disappointment associated with our favorite artists putting out new material. On rare occasions an artist is able maintain a steady ascent – one great record improving  on or outsmarting the next – year after year. But most of our favorite musicians, in large part, make records that either take our breath away or leave us wanting – perhaps due to some nostalgic expectation that a band can continue to release the same album in different notes and lyrics over and over again. Iron & Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean (out today on Warner Bros. records) has been met with critics grappling with this issue in several articles this past week. And while comparing an album with its predecessors isn’t a bad way to go about reviewing a record, I find it rarely does much to communicate anything more than what is already clear to fans: it’s either different or similar.  Such comparisons don’t do much good other than providing an easy platform for judging and end up doing a disservice to great albums like Kiss Each Other Clean.

Sam Beam’s first two releases under the Iron & Wine moniker went a long way in defining him as the soft-voiced, acoustic poet we came to love. Perhaps with those spare and sweet records we imagined Beam as more interested in the basic integrity of a song – it’s melody, and lyrics – than a complicated or (some might say) overwrought presentation and came to admire that in him. In fact, I know some The Creek Drank the Cradle purists who felt betrayed that Beam took his songs to an actual studio for the second release, Our Endless Numbered Days. For most of us, though, it was that second record that cemented Iron & Wine into our minds and hearts. It has since become a classic record, rarely disputed as anything but wonderful and surely quintessential for new Iron & Wine listeners.

So when anticipating the third release, what would eventually become The Shepherd’s Dog, I remember the early, sometimes distressed/frantic buzz that Beam had utilized a full band (the horror!) and much more production for Shepherd’s Dog. Folks were loosing some serious sleep. This gets at the dilemma I was hinting at above – and it’s two-sided. On one side there is the artist whom we’ve blessed with our approval, whom has the privilege now of making music not just an artistic exercise, but also a lucrative one. The artist has the decision, then, to either continue making art, or just sticking to their successful formula, knowing that there will at least be a short run of commercial success to follow. The other side of the coin is related to the audience and our fickle expectations and inevitable critiques. From what I read, what the modern audience wants most from artists like Sam Beam is continuity – less “production,” more “authenticity” -- more of what endeared us to them in the first place, which implicitly means (and I don’t know that this is always clear to some critics) less innovation and art.

To be fair, and ironically, I think most of us think we want our artists to innovate and create art. We perhaps just want that art to meet our expectations. I ran into this problem with the Sufjan Steven’s Age of Adz. One of my favorite musicians put out a record that didn’t live up to the expectations I had placed around his previous releases (especially Illinois, another classic). So rather than allowing myself to be challenged by the artist's explorations with new sounds and formats, I threw my nose up a bit. I’ve since realized that this isn’t a fair approach.

All this leads me to my review of the new album from Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean. It is, to be sure, no Age of Adz. It’s not a challenging listen by any means, but it does represent a sonic expansion for Beam. Kiss Each Other Clean is neither an acoustic record, nor is it then aimed solely at that small audience who initially embraced the first two releases. Iron & Wine’s new record is, instead, an artistic work carefully crafted to have, in this case, a stronger mass appeal (read: first major label release) and as one of those masses, I can say that it succeeds.

This is precisely the opposite issue that existed on the newest Sufjan, a record which threw mass appeal to the wind, but it does represent the same principle question (or paradox) of new-music consumption many of us face: it’s different; so how do I deal with that? It’s my hope that we deal with it with the same grace that Sam Beam has gone about his nearly ten-year career in music.

See, Kiss Each Other Clean is a fantastic record and, despite its commercial appeal, its full of surprises. For example, on the second track “Me and Lazarus” which starts with a synthy, drum and bass thing, a jazzy saxophone (and not cool jazz, mind you) cuts through the rumble at around 1:26 and follows a spacey melody that sets a tone for the entire record. The instrumental surprises continue on songs like “Rabbit Will Run” which ends with an extended flute solo over Hammond B3 keys, and then the sax returns, this time with Stevie-Wonder-“Superstition” synths on the strangely spiritual/hymn-like “Big Burned Hand.” Also new here are several songs with sunny and bop-along vocal arrangements like “Tree By the River” (told in a totally different voice than the song’s frequent appearance in solo live shows over the last few years), and “Half Moon” in which female back-up vocalists actually utter the phrase “oooh-bop bop” like they might if this was a song about putting up a parking lot.

There is also a bit of Beam’s trademark darkness. That storm arrives about midway through the record, rains intensely and is then gone leaving things fresh again, just as one might hope. That said, if you were looking for one song that sums up what this record is about, the last track “Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me” does it. It burns into life like an early Chicago song that has veered off its elevated tracks (I'm thinking "25 or 6 to 4") and continues to build, electric guitars blazing, for seven minutes pushing Sam Beam and company firmly into rock & roll territory. I think that's what this record is about: ten songs and Iron & Wine becomes a rock band. And as much as I love seeing Beam solo, we can only hope that he books this upcoming tour with that band.

So in case you haven't heard, the new record from Iron & Wine is different than their earlier stuff. So what? "Join me in song; join me in song."

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