Iron and Wine, the nom de disque of songwriter Sam Beam, can largely be credited with today's burgeoning field of southern singer-songwriters in the same way that the Drive-By Truckers led a new southern rock movement. As groups like Band of Horses hit the big time last year, many people forgot that Iron and Wine gave them all the road map.
It shouldn't be surprising that Beam has yet to have the mainstream success enjoyed by many of his followers. His career started humbly enough by sending Sub Pop Records some home recordings that ended up as Iron and Wine's first album The Creek Drank The Cradle. Beam admittedly does not like to tour much either and only does so when necessary as he recently explained:
Some of the people that I got to play in this band had given up touring completely. They're all dads and they only wanted to go out for these brief stints of touring that I do. We're the band of dads.
Despite his reserved demeanor, Beam seems ready to try to reach a wider audience on Kiss Each Other Clean. An early indication came when he left Sub Pop for Warner Bros, but the real change started on his previous album The Shepherd's Dog. That record marked the first real sense that Beam was beginning to embrace the recording process as much as he had always embraced his songwriting.
The Shepherd's Dog, now over 3 years old, was an angry record that mirrored many people's concern about the direction and leadership of America. By 2008, we would have a new president and Congress. Beam's anger may have subsided, but his sense of "musical" adventure was only beginning.
It remains an important part of Beam's history that he was a film student and teacher before his musical career took off. This allows him to approach music from a filmmaker's aesthetic, meaning that he doesn't feel hamstrung by any one sensibility or genre.
Beam has long discussed the importance of radio during his youth in South Carolina. He would hear pop, soul, and country in seemingly equal amounts. On Kiss Each Other Clean, he takes one of these styles on and lets it bring the musical sensibility to the entire album. As Beam recently said, "I still remember hearing Fleetwood Mac and Carole King in my mom's car. To hear those songs now, I just automatically smell that car."
On this album, the sounds of 70s troubadour radio serves as a guide. The music here mostly falls easy on the ears and helps give the audience a sense of the car Beam's mother drove when he was a child. Kiss Each Other Clean is an attempt at a broader audience, but it is clearly done from a loving and true perspective.
Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham emerges as a huge influence on Kiss Each Other Clean. Buckingham is probably underrated in the way that he fused the blues based, guitar driven sounds of Fleetwood Mac's early eras into sunny California pop melodies. Later, he experimented quite a bit musically both on Tusk and then on most all of his solo albums. At the core, however, Buckingham is a singer-songwriter.
There's little doubt that the stylistic change from his last album to this one is also informed by his own change of heart about the world around him. Beam is a husband and father of 5 young daughters who has been peacefully living in the Hill Country outside of Austin for a few years. He is like the title of one of his new songs, a "Glad Man Singing."
Happiness and a sunny-sense of optimism weaves throughout Kiss Each Other Clean. Walking Far From Home leads the album off with a soulful gauziness and Tree By The River, a song that Beam has performed live for a while, is shown to be a pop hit in waiting. Big Burned Hand also brings additional 70s FM sounds back into vogue as it mixes blues and funk with a pop slickness that hasn't been heard since the heyday of the Atlanta Rhythm Section.
This is not to say that long time fans won't find continuity here. By placing Rabbit Will Run and Your Fake Name is Good Enough deep within the sequence, Beam also shows how the experimental sounds of The Shepherd's Dog connect with the pop sounds on Kiss. Like Buckingham's penchant for experimental sounds and sonic textures, Beam doesn't feel hamstrung by any musical boundaries.
It a dichomtomy of popular music - when times seem good the music gets loud and angry and when times are unstable the music gets soothing. Beam has let the times be his guide on his last two records. Behold this Glad Man Singing. If you need a little joy during these tough times, this record is a worthy choice.
- Jim Markel