Sam Beam is an unusual artist to say the least. Unusual because he came from an academic background that didn’t necessarily hint at any kind of musical mantra. Prior to adopting the moniker Iron and Wine, he established himself as the scholarly type, thanks to his tenure as a professor of film and cinematography at the University of Miami and at the Miami International University of Art & Design.
Nevertheless, fate took the reins when Beam gave one of his early demos to Michael Bridwell, the brother of Band of Horses’ singer Ben Bridwell. Bridwell, in turn, passed the tape on to a magazine editor who subsequently opted to include it in a new music compilation. It was then that he attracted the notice of Sub Pop Records, for whom he released a stunning sequence of albums shortly after his signing in 2002. The rest, as the old saying goes, is history.
In fact, there’s enough history there to dictate Iron and Wine’s first official archive compilation. Drawn from dozens of outtakes originally intended for Beam’s landmark recording and the one that drew worldwide attention, The Creek Drank the Cradle, its 16 songs make up the first of what’s promised to be an ongoing series of independently released catalog offerings.
Happily though, these tracks don’t consist of mere outtakes and leftovers destined for – or deserving of — the storage bins. To the contrary, they’re good enough to rank as a most worthy addition to Iron and Wine’s classic catalogue. In fact, none of the songs in this set offer any musical differences from the fully realized material that make up Iron and Wine’s “official” releases; after all, Beam has been typically low-key and unobtrusive in all things when it comes to mining his muse. Consequently, Archive Series Volume No. 1 ought to be considered an absolutely mandatory acquisition, not only because it provides a bounty of additional songs, but also because in lieu of an original offering, it’s yet another reminder of just how deliriously seductive Beam is when he’s at his best.
As always, then, the emphasis is on ambiance, a hushed, forlorn, contemplative sound that’s accomplished mainly by the strum of an acoustic guitar, the occasional pluck of a banjo, and beguiling multi-layered harmonies that rarely, if ever, rise above a whisper. Not surprisingly perhaps, there’s an early Simon and Garfunkel vibe adorning many of these songs, due at least in part to more than a hint of yearning, desire and despair. While that might suggest a big bring down, in fact, the opposite is true. In a catastrophe-prone world of noise, danger and uncertainty, Beam’s gentle reassurance offers unexpected relief. At times, that sense of serenity can simply be stunning, and thanks to meditative melodies like “Judgement”, “Quarters in a Pocket” and “Wade Across the Water”, Beam achieves a sublime beauty that’s simply unequalled in terms of its embrace.
That then affirms the very reason why Beam’s been able to build his reputation from that of an indie amateur to one of an accomplished auteur. One can only hope that Archive Series Volume No. 1 is simply the start of other archive offerings yet to come.