Music

Iron & Wine: The Shepherd's Dog

As much for the beautiful distractions conjured by the musicians, the richness and creativity, bells and whistles, The Shepherd’s Dog should one day be regarded for how it reflected its time, timelessly.


Iron & Wine

The Shepherd's Dog

Label: Sub Pop
US Release Date: 2007-09-25
UK Release Date: 2007-09-24
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The musical evolution of Sam Beam’s Iron & Wine is analogous to that of its album artwork, from the wheat and red clay scheme of the 4-track debut The Creek Drank the Cradle to the more colorful yet still gentle leafy greens of Our Endless Numbered Days. Now with The Shepherd’s Dog come vibrant, arresting tones, both in the music and the wild-eyed dog on the cover. Produced once again by Brian Deck, and following a handful of EPs, The Shepherd’s Dog is the most successful merger yet of Beam’s meticulously constructed songs with adventurous arrangements that move further and enthusiastically away from the band’s pious beginnings. Dressed up in West African rhythms, Cajun accordion, or jaunty barroom piano, songs like “The Devil Never Sleeps” and “House by the Sea” sparkle with energy and invention, busier than anything Iron & Wine has yet attempted, but never weighed down by its ambitions.

Despite their fancy new clothes, the basic structures of Beam’s songs are unchanged, their author still drawing from his seemingly bottomless well of home demo-ed recordings. Only the sad-eyed “Carousel” is a recent composition, a woozy yet poignant witness to the dissolution of the American dream filled with allusions to crackheads, Noah, and snow-eating dogs. But even that track contains all the hallmarks of Beam’s songwriting: clusters of memorable imagery laid down in perfect rhythm to repetitive, mantra-like melodies. The only question is whether or not you can get with brushed cymbals or the processed and filtered buzz of Beam’s voice. If you can’t, the mouth-harp twanging and intricate percussion of “House by the Sea” is sure to get under your skin even more, though the lilting, whisper-crooned melodies and evocative wordplay (“The scent of roses and raspberry leaves”, “Like the shape of a wave / The jealous sisters will sing on my grave”) have lost none of their potency with the expanded instrumental palette. Likely, these songs could have been spun out with the same sepia-toned humility as “Promising Light” and “Jesus the Mexican Boy”, but there would be no growth, nothing to explore, no fun.

On the contrary, the twittering Califone-like junkyard funk of “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)”, and the bluesy, noir crawl of “Peace Beneath the City” are as much about play as solemnity, wrapping haunting lines like “The white girls wander the strip mall / Singing all day / ‘Give me a juggernaut heart / And a Japanese car / And someone to free” in layers of texture that don’t reveal themselves fully after one or 50 listens. But for those who still prefer a good old back porch lullaby, “Resurrection Fern” is full of hammer-ons, pedal steel, and nostalgia about “pitching glass at cornfield crows”. The closing, ‘50s pop-flavored waltz “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” is similarly understated in comparison to the rest of the album. Crystalline piano fills sweep through the album’s final moments, trading time with coos and sighs, the song simultaneously one of courtship and mourning. Beam’s lyrics again match Biblical language with cryptic denouncements of popular American culture (“Poison rats… pissing on magazine photos / Those fishing lures thrown in the cold and clean blood of Christ”), not the direct political tirade that may have been predicted by some pre-release interviews, but a heartbroken commentary more dream-like and labyrinthine, and ultimately more true to their time.

There’s disconnect between the characters inhabiting these songs, their daily concerns, and those of the world outside their borders. In “The Devil Never Sleeps”, Beam sings “Everybody bitching ‘There’s nothing on the radio”, a pack of friends wandering around the streets of their town. But the protagonist is also “dreaming again of a city full of fathers in their army clothes”, and admits “Someone bet a dollar that my daddy wasn’t coming home.” The war in Iraq looms in the distance on much of The Shepherd’s Dog, the key word being distance. War is a phantom, an unreality even though there is real impact and consequence. The sun-kissed, angelic “Innocent Bones” hides its pointed observations in clucking banjo, washboard, and rippling piano, “The cartoon king has a tattoo of a bleeding heart / There ain’t a penthouse Christian wants the pain of the scab / But they all want the scar.” Beam’s found his own way of beating around the Bush, of trying to understand the world as it exists now and in history. And as much for the beautiful distractions conjured by the musicians, the richness and creativity, bells and whistles, The Shepherd’s Dog should one day be regarded for how it reflected its time, timelessly.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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