Saturday, February 5, 2011

Michael Fremer Album Review

The Shepherd's Dog

(2007 release)

Iron and Wine

  • Sub Pop SP-710 LP+MP3
  • Produced by: Brian Deck
  • Engineered by: Colin Studybaker
  • Mixed by: Brian Deck
  • Mastered by: Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound
  • Lacquer cut by: John Golden



Fine Songwriting From "Under the Radar" Indie "Group"
by Michael Fremer
January 01, 2011

This is not Sam Beam's (A/K/A Iron and Wine) latest album. It dates from 2007. His first release, The Creek Drank the Cradle, was released back in 2002. Somehow that one, this one, his newest and all of his work escaped my attention until last year's AXPONA audio show in Jacksonville Florida where I saw the collected works in the bins of a Florida audio store owner who had a room at the show. I asked to hear something and he played a cut from this introspective, atmospheric and sonically enticing and well-produced album. I was hooked.

Beam was a professor of film and cinematography at the University of Miami before his musical career took off. The music on this extremely well recorded album simmers and bubbles on very low heat with Beam rarely raising his lyrical voice above a closely miked, often double tracked whisper. It draws you in to a web of complex instrumentation packed with percussives that likewise have the arrangements whispering and never shouting.

The lilting rhythms percolate in time with King Sunny Ade's Nigerian Yorubu Jùjú music along with elements of Jamaican dub, while the arrangements are sprinkled with acoustic and pedal steel guitars and other stringed instruments. Beam's introspection occasionally is reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens'.

Lyrically, Beam is most often densely packed and allegorical. You'll have to listen and/or read carefully to get them and even then comprehension is another, more difficult task. The album's insert has the lyrics and song titles as one long run on sentence block. However, the dense lyrics require patience and probing even when laid out in verse. Consider the album opener, "Innocent Bones":

Cain got a milk-eyed mule from the auction

Abel got a telephone

And even the last of the blue-eyed babies know

That the burning man is the color of the end of day

And how every tongue that gets bit always has another word to say

Cain bought a blade from some witch at the window

Abel bought a bag of weed

And even the last of the brown-eyed babies see

That the cartoon king has a tattoo of a bleeding heart

There ain't a penthouse christian that wants the pain of the scab, but they all want the scar

How every mouth sings of what it's without so we all sing of love

And how it ain't one dog who's good at fucking and denying who he's thinking of

Cain heard a cat tumble limp off the rooftop

Abel heard his papa pray

And even the last of the black-eyed babies say

That every saint has a chair you can borrow in a church to sell

That the wind blows cold across the backs of a master and the kitchen help

There's a big pile of innocent bones still holding up the garden wall

And it was always the broken hand we learned to lean on after all

How God knows if Christ came back he'd find us in a poker game

After finding out the drinks were all free but they won't let you out the door again

(lyrics reprinted without permission)

My favorite lines are: "That the cartoon king has a tattoo of a bleeding heart /There ain't a penthouse christian that wants the pain of the scab, but they all want the scar"

Ain't that the truth?

Yes, the poetry is dense and the meaning often obscure, but the imagery is clear cut and the melodies haunting. Add texturally rich arrangements and a well-focused carefully presented recording and you have a treasure of an album that's easy to recommend, particularly for cynics who think "they don't make records like they used to."

They do.

Thanks to Michael over at  for the exclusive rights to reprint this material.  Stop by for more reviews and features.

©2010 & Michael Fremer - All rights reserved Reprinted by Permission

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