album reviews

Iron & Wine
Around the Well
Sub Pop (2009)

Sweet, Dark, Compiled: Iron & Wine, 'Around the Well'

With only three full-length LPs under his belt, it might seem premature for Iron & Wine's Sam Beam to release a collection of B-sides and rarities now. It's still early in his career, and the gems in his unreleased library certainly could've waited a few years to ensure a high overall quality for the compilation.

Surprisingly, though, the two-disc "Around the Well" (Sub Pop) is a more cohesive collection than one might have expected. It doesn't reach the level of consistency of the group's outstanding 2007 release "The Shepherd's Dog," but it does mirror the trajectory of Beam's career, from the lo-fi solo recordings on the first disc to the full-band studio recordings on disc 2.

It's hard to describe Beam's music without drawing from an endless stream of overused adjectives (quiet, minimal, whispered, etc) that make him sound like every other singer-songwriter with a hushed voice: all those words do certainly apply, but it's Beam's turn of phrase that sets him apart from the others. "Belated Promise Ring," which was written for the film "In Good Company", has such calm sweetness that the song feels like a bedtime story, and the grandiose statement about life's overwhelming moments ("They say time may give you more than your poor bones could ever take.") is sung so understatedly that its deep melancholy takes a few moments to sink in.

Beam includes other songs he recorded for "In Good Company" here as well, including the nine-minute "The Trapeze Swinger," whose ambling pace and repetitious melodies make it one of the weaker additions to the overall collection. But the two other tunes recorded for the film more than make up for it with their lilting melodies, beautiful harmonies ("God Made the Automobile"), and earnestness (the too-short "Homeward These Shoes").

Beam's originals are so layered that it's a shame he spends any time on covers. While he does turn them on their head by adapting them to his soft-spoken style, the surprise factor ends there: his interpretation of The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" turns the electro-pop song into a singer-songwriter love ballad. It's exactly what one would imagine that he would do to the tune, as is his folksy take on New Order's "Love Vigilantes."

But his covers do offer a brief sonic break to the 23-song, 90-minute collection — a short burst of familiarity before dropping back into Beam's world of lovely originals that sound sweet but are tinged with darkness just below the surface.

Written by Express contributor Catherine Lewis

.: Originally published: 19 May 2009.
.: Around the Well on