Sam Beam & co. stretch their wings but never really take flight.
Morning Becomes Electric is a radio program based out of KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., which features in-studio performances by well-regarded acts. Sam Beam's Iron and Wine paid a visit to the show in January 2011, playing a handful of songs and engaging in a bit of on-air interview time with host Jason Bentley. For I&W completists, this is an engaging enough set, featuring three songs from the then-new Kiss Each Other Clean album as well as a few older favorites and rarities. Compared with the band's inventive live shows from 2011, though (I caught them in Portland in May), this set is disappointingly tame.
It's also a radio broadcast, which means some of the already-brief running time is given over to chitchat. Cut away the three conversation tracks, and you're left with just eight songs, only one of which stretches close to five minutes; several are disappointingly slight. "Boy With a Coin" clocks in at 3:30, considerably shorter than the album length, and feels stifled.
That said, the performances are all well played. Beam brings the full complement of musicians into the studio with him -- eleven in all -- and it's clear that these professionals know what is expected of them. For all the layers of brass, keyboards, guitars and percussion, the songs never feel overwrought or busy; the band has always relied on precision and understatement, and that's true here. Set opener "Tree by the River" floats along on waves of strummed acoustic guitar and contains a breeziness absent from the more-layered (and longer) LP version.
The standout cuts here are probably "Summer in Savannah" and "My Lady's House", which are both, coincidentally or not, longer tunes that allow for this roomful of musicians to show off their chops a little. "Summer in Savannah", released as a bonus track on the single for "Walking Far From Home", bounces with a funky groove quite unexpected from this outfit. "My Lady’s House" from 2005's Woman King EP, is classic Iron & Wine, a soft, down-tempo number that puts Beam's wistful vocals front and center. This version adds a bit to the sonic stew and stretches out the tune. Meanwhile "Me and Lazarus", another track from Kiss Each Other Clean, ramps up the fuzzy wah-wah guitar, to good effect.
More of that would have been welcome, but radio is radio, and so the longest track by far is the 10-minute-plus interview with Beam that interrupts the set halfway through. Not only does it disrupt the band's flow, but it adds relatively little to the listener's appreciation of the music. Beam seems like a tremendously good-natured guy, and his soft-spoken Southern drawl is a welcome antidote to the over-hyped "attitude" sported by so many pop and rock musicians, but it's unlikely that many listeners will listen to these conversations more than once. That said, Beam's reflections on his artistic approach to songwriting, which seems rooted as much in his visual arts background as in anything musical, is engaging enough the first time around.
This set is a pleasant enough addition to Iron & Wine’s discography, then, but with only eight short songs and tame arrangements totaling less than half an hour of music, it is far from crucial.