Wild Mercury Sound

Iron & Wine's "The Shepherd's Dog"

John Mulvey

Is it weird to like a record even though it reminds you, however faintly, of something you never liked very much? I only ask because I've been playing this new Iron & Wine record quite a lot this past couple of weeks.

The past Iron & Wine albums have had a distinct touch of Simon & Garfunkel about them, I think, in their hushed minimalism, the way Sam Beam sang in a calm whisper that masked all manner of psychic anxieties. "The Shepherd's Dog", though, is a much fuller and more dynamic record. Many of the 12 tracks have driving, rattling grooves and, although there's a still a feeling of air and space, a clarity and precision to each sound in the mix, there's a whole lot more going on.

But what's strange, especially in the gentle and persistent undulations of a track like "Lovesong Of The Buzzard", is how it kind of reminds me of Paul Simon's "Graceland". It's not an African influence, exactly; more, perhaps, a sense of a traditionally discreet folksinger hitching his songs to elaborately unravelling rhythms.

Fortunately, it works brilliantly, too. Perhaps it's residual indie absolutism, but I'm often a bit suspicious of artists, who've virtually perfected something small, trying to construct a bigger sound that doesn't really suit them. Beam, though, has been extremely clever here. On "White Tooth Man", he and his musicians kick up a momentum that's irresistible and actually psychedelic. But there's still a lightness of touch at all times which ensures, critically, that the musical arrangements don't overwhelm the delicacy of Beam's voice.

"Carousel" is more familiar, muted, but even here there's a depth and detailing which reveals itself on fifth, sixth, seventh listens. Listening to "The Shepherd's Dog" as I write, I'm struck by how much there is to take in here, a kind of measured lushness, a subtle hyperactivity, that aligns Iron & Wine firmly with this sector's heavy hitters Calexico and Lambchop; Joey Burns and Paul Niehaus actually contribute to the album, few of you will be surprised to hear.

"Wolves (Song Of The Shepherd's Dog)" has just come on. There are weird dub drop-outs, bubbling FX and echoing piano chords reverberating around some Cooder-ish slide, then a fidgety, chattering rhythm that, again, feels a world away from the gothic southern folk with which Beam made his name.

I'm thinking of "Graceland" again, and I'm wondering if anyone else has a record they love which reminds them of a record they loathe? Drop me a line below. . .


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