Iron and Wine Around the Well

[Sub Pop; 2009]

Styles: indie rock, lo-fi, folk, Americana
Others: Lou Barlow, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Nick Drake, Neil Young

Listening to The Creek Drank the Cradle was like digging through a reclusive friend's collection of home recordings and realizing that he is a genius. On that record, Sam Beam's gentle vocals and impeccable acoustic guitar playing was modest, restrained, and adequately imperfect, encouraging a romanticized reading of his work that one might assume impossible in an age of mass consumption and intricate networking. Since then, Iron and Wine has become more of a band than a one-man project for Beam, yet he's maintained an unaffected mellowness that continues to make his albums seem like buried treasures that the listener is privileged to even be let in on.

Given this enduring quality, the compiled nature of Around the Well works nicely with the Iron and Wine aesthetic. Not a proper follow-up to 2007's The Shepherd's Dog, the two-disc (three-LP) approximates even more clearly the romanticization of discovery, here bringing together various B-sides, soundtrack contributions, and previously unreleased songs. Although it's not sequenced in any chronological order, the two discs are naturalized between the man-alone-in-his-bedroom sound and the higher fidelity and more elaborate arrangements. However, even with this bifurcation, the distance separating any two of these tracks is minimal: it's more surfacy than substantive.

For those already steeped in Iron and Wine ephemera, many of these songs will be familiar, from the early hushed B-side of "Dearest Forsaken" to the laid-back, ambling classic rock leftover "Sinning Hands," which was originally included as a bonus track in the early vinyl release of Our Endless Numbered Days. Some of the best nuggets here are the covers, two of which (Stereolab's "Peng! 33" and New Order's "Love Vigilantes") are seeing their first official pressing, but this also provides a setting for the Iron and Wine version of The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights," which appears throughout the film Garden State and in that rather ubiquitous M&M commercial from a few years back. In fact, the cover might (perversely) be the most widely recognized Beam recording of all.

Anyone who dug Beam's official albums will likely enjoy this odds-and-ends release. Though, obviously one shouldn't expect the same sense of blessed wholeness of those albums (and EPs). It's a patchwork of different sessions, different players, and different phases in a relatively nascent career. Where Beam's next new release will take his listeners in 2010 is only now being decided, but for those who'd like reason to momentarily gaze backward, Around the Well offers an ample and satisfying excuse.

1. Dearest Forsaken
2. Morning
3. Loud as Hope
4. Peng! 33
5. Sacred Vision
6. Friends They Are Jewels
7. Hickory
8. Waitin? for a Superman
9. Swans and the Swimming
10. Call Your Boys
11. Such Great Heights
12. Communion Cups and Someone's Coat
13. Belated Promise Ring
14. God Made the Automobile
15. Homeward These Shoes
16. Love Vigilantes
17. Sinning Hands
18. No Moon
19. Serpent Charmer
20. Carried Home
21. Kingdom of the Animals
22. Arms of a Thief
23. The Trapeze Swinger

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