It was eight years ago that indie label Sub Pop released an album's worth of home-recorded material from quiet Miami film professor Sam Beam, under the moniker Iron & Wine. That first album, Creek Drank the Cradle, became the impetus for many similarly hushed (and often bearded) vocalists fumbling over acoustic guitars. But stereotypes aside, almost none of them create the sense of intimacy and immediacy of Beam's isolated first recordings.
I say "stereotypes aside," but it's proven difficult to avoid saying that when discussing Iron & Wine. They've come to represent the segment of current music deemed "indie folk," along with other second-wave "revivalists" Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, and even the freakier Devendra Banhart. The term itself is problematic; both words are inflammatory — "indie" for its tendency to pigeonhole large swaths of music and "folk" for nearly the opposite reason. Indie folk is usually limited to a strict, traditionally driven sound that, in reality, has fostered a vast landscape of music.
What started as a musical description has become a class of musicians linked largely by image. While it can't be denied that descendants of Beam's whispered lyrics and woven harmonies are often flannel-clad and beard-ridden, even giants on the distorted, noise-rock side of the indie spectrum have a similar look.
The result of all this is an easily generalized subgenre distinguished only by controlling influences. Beam has mercifully escaped the Bob Dylan comparisons that plague so much of modern acoustic songwriting but not without his share of equations to Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkel, or Neil Young. While these influences are certainly there and often strong, they threaten to eclipse the reality of Beam's work.
There's a tendency when it comes to Beam and his contemporaries to pick apart the influences and stop there. But to do that is to fail to notice what makes them interesting, what originally pulled each to the forefront of a wide and varied group of musicians.
The fact that Beam draws from many sources is a strength, not a hindrance. He combines the aforementioned musical heroes with strong elements of Southern gothic prose, threading both with a softness that could border on lethargy if not for its passionate sincerity. Beam's music sounds very much like America's Southeast, an achievement that runs through Iron & Wine's contemporaries: Seattle's Fleet Foxes conjure a Northwest mountainside vividly, and Bon Iver does the same for a still, frozen Wisconsin forest.
What roots all three is their distinct sense of timelessness: Rather than encompassing or eschewing all periods, they skillfully evoke the present through the past. There's a true currency to Beam's crafted responses to nature that justifies his distinction from earlier folk-influenced music.
But his first, and likely most prominent, showing was in 2002. The nature of Beam's work makes it easy to relegate it to background noise, and even true admirers will probably admit to having fallen asleep while listening once or twice. Interestingly (and perhaps accordingly), Beam has grown steadily louder as his body of work increased, in a progression fueled largely by his stage performances. It's not often that Beam surprises on a new album; instead, each step forward brings a new satisfaction with an old sound.
Our Endless Numbered Days, Iron & Wine's second, very popular album, ups the studio gloss and light-hearted finger-picking without losing any of the quietude of Creek Drank the Cradle. From there, Beam incorporated a touring band, which became added studio back-up, which became two progressively fuller-sounding albums and finally 2007's The Shepherd's Dog, very well-received in critical spheres as almost a sigh of relief that Beam had finally given over to a full backing band.
Beam's devotion to rolling chords, sighing vocals, and haunting, concrete imagery has defined Iron & Wine throughout, and while the next step has been a long time coming, Beam has garnered a position of real creative freedom for himself. Kiss Each Other Clean, coming in January, will provide some insight into where Beam's been moving the last three years and perhaps create some expectation of what's to come.
Iron & Wine
Sunday, November 14th, 8 p.m.