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Album review: Iron & Wine's 'Kiss Each Other Clean'

January 24, 2011 |  8:18 pm

Iron_wine_240_ There’s a graduate thesis waiting to happen in exploring the strangely beatific air that surrounds the music of Sam Beam’s Iron & Wine. With poetic songs that unspool like oblique parables and a lush beard that would make naturalist John Muir proud, Sam Beam’s early recordings felt almost startlingly intimate behind whispered words and guitar that seemed near-monastic in their raw simplicity.

Now with his fifth album, Beam may not have abandoned his roots, but he’s certainly stretched far beyond them. With a band stocked with veterans of Chicago’s experimental music scene that include members of Califone and the Chicago Underground Duo’s Chad Taylor, Beam’s evocative folk has evolved into incorporating dips into soul, woozy R&B and loose-limbed ‘70s rock. Behind a buttery electric keyboard and cooing backing vocals, “Tree by the River” sounds like a new classic of the AM Gold era, while the percolating world percussion and swells of noise in “Monkeys Uptown” and the dark travelogue “Rabbit Will Run” form vivid counterpoints for Beam’s urgent melodies.

Other welcome touches include drunken New Orleans horns on “Big Burned Hand” (spiked by a rare bit of profanity from Beam that feels weirdly jarring, like some breach of ecclesiastic etiquette) and the driving funk of “Yr City Is a Sucker,” which features high-pitched choruses and jazzy brass reminiscent of early Chicago that builds to Beam ranting like an end times prophet who can see the walls crumbling. It’s not always the stuff of angels, but it’s something far richer.

—Chris Barton

Iron & Wine
“Kiss Each Other Clean”
Warner Bros.
Three and a half stars (Out of four)