Sam Beam is not only one of America's best songwriters, he's also easily one of the most consistent.
Since the internet makes it easy to track down pretty much any song you're looking for these days -- no matter how obscure -- the rarities compilation has lost some of its appeal. To cull all the unreleased and out-of-print tracks into one release is convenient for the listener, and gives them the chance to support the artist instead of just downloading the tracks off a litany of blogs, but there's little in the way of surprises. In that way, they almost feel like obligations for dedicated fans and completists instead of exciting releases.
So maybe it's not enough to just collect the rare stuff. Maybe these compilations should do something more. The way Iron & Wine's Around the Well does. As a collection of rare and out-of-print tracks, you won't be surprised by much of this if you've been following Sam Beam over the years. I mean, at this point who hasn't heard his take on "Such Great Heights" or even the slightly harder to find cover of the Flaming Lips' "Waiting for a Superman"? And "The Trapeze Swinger", though excellent, has been pretty easy to track down since it appeared both on the In Good Company soundtrack and as a single on iTunes.
But though fans may have heard much of the stuff on Around the Well already, what this two-disc set does very well is to give these songs -- too long left floating alone out there in cyberspace -- some context, and to show that Sam Beam is not only one of America's best songwriters, he's also easily one of the most consistent. From his simple but affecting melodies, his subtle way with a phrase, his uncanny ability to re-imagine other artists' work, and his growing love of percussion and noise-play, Around the Well puts the trajectory of a great artist on display.
The 23 tracks here, ordered in a loose chronology, are split up into two discs -- the first covers Beam's home recordings, and the second is all studio-recorded material. And while that split seems a little superficial, there isn't any division between the two. Instead, there's a build-up that occurs as you listen to Around the Well, one that carries over from the first disc to the second. On "Sacred Vision", we get to hear one of Beam's earliest recordings, and it's got all the elements he has built on over his career. The delicate guitar, his whispered tone, simple yet knockout lines like "There's no way to grow that don't hurt." It's all comes together to make a great song. Along with other old tracks like "Dearest Forsaken" and "Morning", you start to get a new appreciation for how much work went into The Creek Drank the Cradle, and how much great material he had to sift through to make that album the fully-formed statement it became.
But as you move into the end of the first disc and the start of the second, it becomes apparent that around the time Beam recorded Our Endless Numbered Days, he was not only in a creative frenzy, but at the height of his powers. Songs like "Swans and the Swimming" and "Communion Cups and Someone's Coat" have melodies just a little tighter, a little more swirling in their beauty, than the ones that came before them. These were songs written when Beam had released his great second album, and was preparing to shift his sound on the Woman King EP, so that they got left off of albums may have only been because there was no place to put them.
They also laid the groundwork for the work he did for the In Good Company soundtrack. Perhaps the biggest surprise to be found on Around the Well is the inclusion of three tracks Beam wrote for the movie that didn't make the soundtrack. All three are excellent, from the pastoral thump of "Broken Promise Ring" -- which starts with a great lyrical twist on "Sunday Morning Coming Down" -- to the moodier but lush folk of "God Made the Automobile" and the brief but wonderful "Homeward These Shoes". All three are also stuck between the more solo-sounding older songs, and Beam's then growing work to make Iron & Wine a full-on band. And after a few more tracks that hang in that same limbo, the second half of the disc shows off the murky shuffle of more recent Iron & Wine material. "Carried Home" is as strong as anything on The Shepherd's Dog, as is the banjo romping of "Serpent Charmer". "Kingdom of the Animals" swirls sounds around a clean piano, and the song is absolutely stunning.
As this collection moves along, not only does it make for an insightful look back at Beam's progression, it also stuns you with how consistently great it is. There isn't a weak link to be found on either disc, and there are more than a handful of standouts. Not surprisingly, the covers Beam includes are excellent. He takes songs like New Order's "Love Vigilantes" or Stereolab's "Peng! 33" and strips away the big drums and fuzz to reveal the small grain of feeling buried in those tracks. And with all the covers now in one place, you start to see how so many disparate artists influence Beam's own songwriting.
Around the Well is a collection that is very much worthwhile, even in a time when rarities aren't all that rare. It's clearly been put together with care, and with the intention of telling a story. The story is of Sam Beam, an artist that started with considerable strengths and a unique sound, and has used his gifts to keep pushing for new ground. On this album you can see both where Beam has been, and where he is going. And while there will be a new Iron & Wine album inn 2010, this collection's amazing consistency, and glut of stellar songs, guarantees that is hardly just a hold-over.