Iron & Wine’s Woman King EP Review

iron and wine woman king cover

Iron and Wine
Woman King EP

Sub Pop, February 2005

“No hands are half as firm or gentle as they’d like to be.”
-Sam Beam

From the beginnings of his career, Sam Beam seemed to exist somewhere
near the forefront of the new folk movement. People like Devendra
Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Will Oldham were surfacing in the wake
of his success, either as new names or as older, underappreciated
artists in their long-awaited uprising.

With his first album, The Creek Drank the Cradle, he started
out intentionally. He presented himself in lo-fidelity, wrote songs
reminiscent of a folk aesthetic and downplayed his vocals like a
true indie artist. Since then, his sound has moved away from the
obscure and has inched closer to the modern singer-songwriter world:
The sonic quality of his albums has become incrementally more polished,
his songs have developed more palatable melodies and his lyrics
seem to include more references to a certain unfashionable deity
whose name I will not mention.

Generally, any one of these descriptions would be reason enough
for me to fling a disc from a speeding vehicle; but with Iron and
Wine’s newest album, I would be missing out on something important.

The album is the perfect next step in the career of a folk artist
living in the current music climate. For one thing, it is a definitive
step. It is not a rehashing of the old bag of folk tricks. It is
proof that Sam Beam can nurture and feed some of the elements of
his last album, Our Endless Numbered Days, without repeating
himself and without losing his distinct sound. This is a fine line.
It is the same line that causes most artists to trip and collapse
into irrelevance. It is what pushes intelligent musicians to explore
the depth of their sound and what reveals other musicians to be
fleeting products of their time and place. In this particular case,
Beam has shown himself to be an attentive, authentic songwriter.
He has contributed another list of crafted songs to his already
impressive oeuvre.

On Woman King, the tunes step closer to the sound of traditional
blues while the recording quality steps further away. The fidelity
is almost too clean and warm for the intimate, porch-side style
of music. It is the inappropriate effect of Robert Johnson in a
modern day studio. Beam’s guitar playing also tends to fall
more regularly into blues-riffs, acoustic tap-alongs and driving
rhythms, rather than the sweet finger-picking style that was the
previous Iron and Wine staple. The vocals have shifted only slightly.
He maintains simpler, higher ranges and as a result replaces some
of his classic, subdued qualities with a larger range of emotion
and a higher level of intensity (a relative word).

He is almost always accompanied by vocalist (and sibling) Sarah
Beam, who—although present on previous albums—contributes
the kind of backup vocals that almost make the work an album of
duets. This is both good and bad. In some ways, it is this very
element that leads the music away from the independent folk genre
and into that smooth, contemporary blues/singer-songwriter terrain
we sometimes call a “guilty pleasure.” But it also adds
a certain Peter, Paul and Mary quality to the melodies, which would
otherwise be stark and gospel-like.

The EP also introduces entirely new elements to the Iron and Wine
sound. Sparse percussion becomes almost as integral to the music
as his characteristic guitar melodies. It is everywhere on the album.
It drives the music. It gels the six songs together and creates
a relatively cohesive sound out of the disc, a characteristic almost
more important on EPs than full lengths, which are generally too
long to sustain a single sonic quality.

Most importantly, Woman King preserves the integrity Sam
Beam has developed on previous albums. Despite the substantial shifting
of his sound, there is no passage that corrupts the hypnotic mood
or abandons the well-loved Iron and Wine personality. At all moments,
even the less focused ones, the music feels intelligent, calm and
honest, like a story from a wise grandfather.

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