Whether you realize it or not, you've probably heard the pastoral crooning of Sam Beam at least once. Beam records and performs under the stage name Iron & Wine, and his delicate style of folk has been featured in several films, commercials and television shows. Beam, who studied and taught cinematography before transitioning into music, adeptly portrays vivid landscapes and poignant visuals in his music. His whispery, almost sullen voice evokes images of timeless Americana-his wistful characters move like ghosts against backdrops that are sometimes rural and other times metaphysical.
Iron & Wine's debut LP, The Creek Drank the Cradle, was released in 2002 and quickly caught the attention of scores of indie, folk and country music fans. The album is sparse but well paced with hypnotic melodies laid over simple plucking acoustic, slide and banjo tracks. The Creek Drank the Cradle's modest production value suits Beam's slow, introspective songwriting style. The album sounds as though it may have been recorded half a century earlier by a wandering folk musician, then unearthed and re-released.
Beam followed The Creek Drank the Cradle with Our Endless Numbered Days in 2004. For his second album, Beam enlisted the help of several other skilled musicians, including his vocalist/violinist sister Sara. The end result was more fleshed out instrumentation, featuring ethereal percussion and vocal harmonies that spiral around a core of acoustic guitar. The Beam siblings' vocals mesh almost flawlessly, and, coupled with Sam's rapidly maturing songwriting style, provide spooky undertones for an album that is a cross between Southern folk and modern blues.
In 2005, Beam teamed up with Southwestern folk rock phenoms Calexico to produce In the Reins, an EP that was a departure from Iron & Wine's typical modest style. In its seven tracks, In the Reins combines Beam's wispy, thoughtful vocals with the grandiose Western style of Calexico, a band that incorporates slide, brass and a full drum kit in each song. The end result is a brief but memorable album that conjures images of expansive desert skies and the dusty settlers that wander beneath them.
Iron & Wine's latest album, The Shepherd's Dog, is a far cry from Beam's humble beginnings. Released in 2007, the LP features piano, full thumping percussion and, yes, even electric guitar. The album is anything but sparse, but its full production and instrumentation give wings to Beam's Old South style. The Shepherd's Dog is Beam's take on pop sentimentality. Though diehard fans may pine for the intimacy and modesty of Iron & Wine's former stylings, The Shepherd's Dog is certainly worth a listen.