The Upshot: Simplicity and ease win the day on Sam Beam’s first solo release in four decades.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam pares things back to essentials for this sixth full-length, his first solo release in four years. A calm permeates eleven uncluttered, unfussed songs, as Beam carries pretty melodies with a quiet voice through warm, casually right arrangements of guitar, stringed instruments, keyboards, bass and drums. It’s a little sleepy, but picturesque and redolent of the basic stuff of human life, sort of like the southern towns that Beam’s lyrics depict (“Every traffic light is red when it tells the truth/The church bell isn’t kidding when it cries for you,” from “Thomas County Law”).
Beam worked with a familiar crew. Longtime keyboard player Rob Burger is on hand again, littering “Song in Stone” with twinkling piano and layering thick ribbons of organ onto “Call It Dreaming.” Sebastian Steinberg lays in a subtle plunk of bass that you can hear most clearly in staccato, jazz-inflected “Last Night.” Two Califone vets — percussionist Joe Adamik and utility player Jim Becker (guitar, mandolin, banjo and violin) —lend a certain ghostly roots complexity. And Teddy Rankin Parker is everywhere in the corner of your ear, coaxing rich throbs of bowed emotional resonance from his cello. On paper, that sounds like a lot of players and, perhaps, a certain amount of busy-ness, but in practice the sound is light and bright and simple sounding, a frame rather than a filter for Beam’s songwriting ideas.
Indeed simplicity and ease win the day on Beast Epic, which foreswears interesting sidebars like trance blues wanderings of Shepherd’s Dog or the Latin drama of Beam’s collaborations with Calexico, or even the conversational tensions of recent duets with Jesca Hoop. Instead cuts like “Call It Dreaming” feel focused and well-edited, as if Beam had taken a blue pencil to his wildest ideas and cut out all the diversions. The result is modest and warm and a damn near perfect of expression of his folk-pop core. Don’t look for fireworks here, but rather smaller, quieter revelations that take time to unveil themselves.
DOWNLOAD: “Call It Dreaming”