#10 – Kiss Each Other Clean by Iron & Wine

Label:  Warner Bros.

Released:  25-Jan-2011

Artist’s Website:  www.ironandwine.com

Hyper-hyphenated laid-back indie-dub-funk-folk-rock from the American South

Some artists are content to rest on their laurels once they taste the first fruits of success.  There must be a huge temptation for someone, having discovered a rich vein of material, to stop in one place and mine the seam until it’s gone.  Fortunately for music fans, Sam Beam has other ideas.

Beam is the mastermind behind the renowned indie-folk-rock-alternative combo that assembles under the name Iron & Wine.  When he first emerged on the music scene, his Iron & Wine project was lauded for hushed, lo-fi, fragile, hushed and twisted folk songs.  Over time, Beam has added (and subtracted) band members, progressively introducing a multitude of new sounds, shapes and rhythms to flesh out the skeletal structure of his songs.

2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days album brought a measured amount of mainstream success, and Iron & Wine songs started appearing in network TV programs and movies.  In 2007, The Shepherd’s Dog sounded much more produced, confident, and playful than the earlier works and appeared on many best-of-the-year lists.  Kiss Each Other Clean has pushed the boat out even further from shore, with some unexpected new textures that maybe we should learn to expect from Sam Beam.

The first song, “Walking Far From Home”, signals this shifting approach to songwriting.  Beam’s resonant voice intones a circular lyric over a lush bed of synthesizers, piano, and percussion.  “Me and Lazarus” dances with a laid-back funk bass groove and sexy saxophone.  Words like “funk bass groove” were likely never associated with Iron & Wine back in the lo-fi SubPop days, but somehow these sharp sonic left turns just seem like a natural evolution today.

One of the album’s highlights is “Tree By The River”, which sounds like a distant cousin of Hearts & Bones era Paul Simon.  While featuring a traditional arrangement (by Iron & Wine standards) of organ and guitars, “Tree By The River” manages to sound wistful, nostalgic, and sepia-toned yet distinctly modern.  The purple patch continues with “Monkeys Uptown”, which wraps another funky bass line and waves of synths around an oblique lyric.

The magic of Kiss Each Other Clean is that producer Brian Deck somehow manages to balance the various synth squiggles and funky chunks with Beam’s engaging voice and autumnal storytelling.  The overall effect is a cohesive set of songs that organically unfurl, drawing in the listener.  In lesser hands, the buzzes and whistles of “Rabbit Will Run” or the skronky sax of “Big Burned Hand” would have sounded too busy and discordant.  Instead, the ten tracks on this album smoothly flow one into the next like the chapters of an oddly engaging novel.



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