The Shepherd's Dog CD
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Deeply sensual, richly pastoral, The Shepherd's Dog is a slow-burning late summer treat. Sam Beam's second album is assured and confident. Beam (his nom de disque taken from a dietary supplement named Beef Iron & Wine), a former professor of Film and Cinematography at Miami International University of Art & Design, is something of a word-of-mouth find. Some may know him from his work with Calexico; others from his cover of the Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" which has been used in various adverts and in the 2004 cult hit movie, Garden State.
Understatement here is the order of the day. Beam said in a recent interview that The Shepherd's Dog is 'not a political propaganda record, but it's definitely inspired by political confusion, because I was really taken aback when Bush got re-elected'. This confusion of an America adrift is addressed throughout the album, yet never at the expense of a cracking tune. Some of these songs have been around for a while: "Boy With A Coin", "House by the Sea" and "The Love Song Of The Buzzard" have been in his live set. The late night elegance of "Carousel", musically a cross between "Entangled" by Genesis and "Runaways" by XTC is eerie and affecting. The interlocking hi-life guitars of "Wolves (Song Of The Shepherd's Dog)" and the rambunctious opener "Pagan Angel And A Borrowed Car" show the breadth of Beam's musical palette.
Soothing and sinister at the same time, The Shepherd's Dog deserves to sit sweetly in the year end polls. --Daryl Easlea
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Top customer reviews
This has GOT to be the breakthrough album, or I'm a monkey's uncle. It will sell like the proverbial hot-cakes so get your copy while it's on the shelves. It's not album of the year (For my money that's still Panda Bear's "Person Pitch") but its cast iron top five.
That is not to say that The Shepherd's Dog is a masterpiece. It isn't and, in the blues interlude Devil Never Sleeps, contains at least one song which would be better left off. However it is a much richer and rewarding album while still unmistakably an Iron and Wine release. Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car begins proceedings brilliantly and sets the scene. Throughout, the album has an Indian feel at times reminding me of the Byrds and, on occasions the Blue Aeroplanes in some of their folkier moments and, in the penultimate Peace Beneath the City, like New Adventures In Hi Fi-era REM.
Sam Beam's voice is immediately recognisable but while on, especially, And the Creek Drank the Cradle it stood out against a stately, quiet backing, here it is intertwined with an array of musical effects and textures against which it fares favourably.
At first I thought Boy With A Coin was an odd choice for a single but it has grown on me, based on short vocal lines, hypnotic clapping, haunting pedal steel and nimble percussion.
The album ends beautifully with the intriguingly-titled Flightless Bird. American Mouth. In waltz time it features Beam's most beautiful vocal and reminds me of a less fragile Raining in Darling which concludes Bonny Prince Billy's I See a Darkness. The Shepherd's Dog isn't as good as I See a Darkness but it is not far off and that's one of the highest compliments I know. Highly recommended to old fans and new and destined to shine at the End of Year Polls.
The opener 'Pagan Angel And A Borrowed Car', swells from a looped alt-country twang into swinging kaliedoscopic pop replete with vocal harmonies, piano, strings and little backwards psychedelic effects. As with his acoustic work, Beam relies less on traditional verse-chorus-verse structures than on cyclical lyrics, both poetic and anecdotal. The genious of this album is the way his unusual lyrical style is echoed in the experimental energies of the music, looping and slightly trance-like but not without a pop sensibility. Although Beam has a voice so soft and whispery it makes Belle & Sebastien sound like ruffians, he overcomes the limits of his vocal range by using his voice as an instrument (albeit one that carries obscure narratives). His voice plays off the musicianship in a call-and-response that's by turns cheerful and scarily intense, sometimes thickening it with double-track or assistance from backing vocalists.
'White Tooth Man' is darker; Beam's cryptic words spiralling out from speaker and then the next, with a variety of stringed instruments playing off one another until the tension builds to a cacophanous climax. Has a sitar ever been used so ominously since the Stones? Kular Shaker this isn't. 'Lovesong of the Buzard' is gentler, humming with warmth and awakening like a sunrise. A lovely acoustic slide guitar forms a chorus melody of sorts, a gorgeous compliment to the shimmering organs.
On 'Carousel' Beam's vocal is rendered acquatic through some filtered manipulation over some lovely plucked guitar work, retaining the intimacy of his older recordings but less of its starkness. 'House By The Sea' is a kind of sea shanty that builds over a bass saxophone refrain so squelchy it could be a didgeridoo; a bizarre mix of folk whimsy and Dionysian revelry. 'Innocent Bones' shuffles along on a tropicalia rythmn with sweetly sung vocals, harmonisations and little cascades of plucked banjo.
'Wolves (Song Of The Shepherd's Dog)' sounds like Crowded House remixed by King Tubby - in a good way! - with its breezy dub unravelling into an extended downtempo jam. For all its sonic playfulness, it is calculated bliss - nothing is wasted. Some of Calexico's multi-instrumental colour and fusion must have rubbed off on Beam since their fine collaborative EP 'He Lays in the Reins', which should be your next purchase. 'Resurrection Fern' and closer 'Flightless Bird American Mouth' are shiver-inducing ballads that retain the intimacy of his earlier recordings, albeit embellished with widescreen production touches. In contrast, the single 'Boy With A Coin', skips along on a handclapped rhythm in a trippy time signature and features some inspired slide guitar. While 'Devil Never Sleeps' is just a two-minute diversion, 'Peace Beneath The City' is more expansive in its ominous nocturnal atmosphere. All in all, it's a triumph, and surely one of the year's best.
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