Review: Iron & Wine – Archive Series Volume No. 1

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4.5

Aspiring artists will relate to the backstory of Sam Beam, working long, iron-clad hours at a day job while focusing on his craft at night with a cup of wine by his side. Before the release of his first LP The Creek Drank The Cradle, Beam was a professor of film and cinematography at the Miami International University of Art & Design. But when Beam caught the attention of Sub Pop, the record label that put out Creek ­under his moniker Iron & Wine, it wasn’t known that this album was carefully selected from a repertoire of over thirty songs. Now, the next sixteen tunes have surfaced as Archive Series Volume No. 1 on Beam’s own record label Black Cricket Recording Co.

Listeners are immediately pummelled into a dark, eerie world where a dragging, acoustic guitar progression accompanies a hauntingly beautiful vocal melody with low-pitched, whispering harmonies. The slinging, slide guitar layers and banjo plucking that surface halfway through the track mirror the slow pace of a grotesque, muck-filled black river. To add to this sense of weariness, a constant hiss is present throughout all of these remastered lo-fi recordings.

If the hiss doesn’t give away the time period, Beam’s fingerpicking, pluck-and-go style definitely will. Sing Song Bird and Loretta contain a similar style as Creek tracks Lion’s Mane and Faded From The Winter. Another rhythm Beam often uses is the chunk and drive/strum and pick pattern. Your Sly Smile on Archive Series Volume No. 1 demonstrates this rhythm, which is also heard on Creek during Bird Stealing Bread.

The song Judgment stands out from Archive because it is performed on an electric guitar, which is incredibly rare for early Iron & Wine songwriting. This choice is sure to elicit disbelief in whether or not the track belongs on the record. However, the instrument is rhythmically presented in a similar way that Beam normally delivers on an acoustic, and as the verse progresses, listeners will understand that the electric vibe fits perfectly. The effects on the guitar are one hundred percent clean with no distortion, and the song ends in true Iron & Wine fashion with harmonised “ooohs” and a banjo layer to complement the bold-toned guitar.

After the release of Beam’s third LP The Shepherd’s Dog, Iron & Wine aficionados became wary of the added instrumentation and studio effects that seeped its way into his recording artist style. By Kiss Each Other Clean they developed apathy and after Ghost On Ghost they completely gave up. However, the record in between The Shepherd’s Dog and the two poppy, overly computerized releases was Around The Well. This compilation of out-of-print and unreleased Creek era songs gave fans a taste of what was to come on this most recent Archive Series release. Although Beam’s new records have been tragic disappointments, the surfacing of early, lo-fi quality Iron & Wine material is a breath of fresh air. Hopefully this is only the first installment of the Archive Series, and Beam will continue to grace us with the songs we really want to hear.

Scott J. Herman