Iron & Wine have shown an impressive work ethic since the release of The Creek Drank the Cradle in 2002. A flood of singles, EPs, and albums, each with high levels of quality, have made Iron & Wine and Sam Beam stars in the indie rock world. Introspective, leaning toward morose, and heavily bearded stars, but glittering just the same. 2007's The Shepherd's Dog goes a long way toward validating all the attention I&W have been getting; it's their best, most diverse, and most listenable record yet, as Beam and co. take another leap away from the lo-fi, one-dude-in-a-bedroom beginnings of the group. Here Beam surrounds himself with a large cast of musicians, and they blanket the songs with a wide array of instrumentation, everything from accordions to Hammond organ, piano to backward guitars, vibraphone to bass harmonica. Nothing too strange in the everything-goes world of indie rock circa 2007, but for Iron & Wine, it's a widescreen revelation. Perhaps working with Calexico on 2005's In the Reins inspired Beam to use all the colors in the paint box. Maybe it's a natural progression. Either way it leads to an inspiringly lush album, full of imaginative and rich arrangements. Not to say Beam has cast aside the vital elements that made the band so interesting to begin with; his whispered vocals still conjure shadowy mystery, the songs are still melancholy as hell at their core, and as always there's a lingering sense of Southern gothic foreboding shrouding the proceedings. The increased production values take these elements and goose them. The recognizably I&W songs like the dark and creepy "Peace Beneath the City" or the gloomy country ballad "Resurrection Fern" sound bigger and have a different kind of impact. Take "Boy with a Coin," which in the past would have been spare, spooky, and a bit insular, but now is huge and spooky thanks to the propulsive handclaps and atmospheric backward guitars that would make Daniel Lanois jealous. Along with these pumped-up variations on the band's classic sound, there are songs you'd never imagine hearing on an Iron & Wine album. The danceable (!) "House by the Sea" has jumpy Afro-pop underpinnings and a bit of wild abandon in Beam's more passionate-than-usual vocals; "Wolves (Song of the Shepherd's Dog)" is a funky mix of David Essex's "Rock On," a backwoods-sounding Meters, and of all things, dub reggae; and most shockingly, "The Devil Never Sleeps" actually rocks with a rollicking barroom piano, a loping tempo, bongos, and lyrics about nothing on the radio, leading to a sound that's ironically perfect for the radio. By the end of the record, you may feel a few pangs for the discarded, sparse sound of early Iron & Wine, but the beauty and majesty of The Shepherd's Dog will pave right over them, and you should be able to enjoy the masterful songcraft, inspired performance, and note-perfect production with no guilt and a fair bit of awe.
© Tim Sendra /TiVo