Pre-Screening: Iron & Wine

Album: Around the Well
Artist: Iron & Wine
Label: Sub Pop
Due Out: May 19th

Yes, this is, indeed, a compilation album. A large portion of the songs that appear on Iron & Wine's Around the Well have not been heard before by more than the most-dedicated fans. They are an extensive group of songs (23 in all), which the man behind the music, Samuel Beam, put together quite nicely, and for that, should at least be awarded with an evaluation. On top of this, Matt was traveling today, and thus couldn't post his usual Thursday article, so I decided to compile this double-dip album review in its place. Thursday/early Friday will be this album, while I'll feature another album later Friday. However, regardless of the fact that this album was not put together as organically as the others we normally discuss, I can assure you that the content flows extremely well, and even seems to carry a similar vibe, though obviously taken from many different writing periods.

"Dearest Forsaken" starts us off with a classic Iron & Wine vibe- a quick acoustic and banjo number covering the issues of love. Immediately following, it appropriately opens up into the bright "Morning," which stays true to its name and slowly wakes you up, easing you into the record. The one underlying aesthetic you start to sense within a few songs is the (almost too) glaring similarities to the work of Sufjan Stevens, and it is even harder to ignore once you get to "Loud As Hope". "Peng! 33" continues the positive outlook with its quest, and apparent discovery, of happiness. Then "Sacred Vision" slows us down again. For the most part, the tracks here on disc one alternate between up-tempo and the slower material, and I feel as if it's something that works very well for the type of record we're looking at. Tracks such as "Friends They Are Jewels" may seem to make this theory sound false though.

Heading into the next grouping of songs, "Hickory" doesn't speed up, but rather glows as compared to the previous one. I hate using brightness too much as a description for music, but this song's easy-going nature and airy presentation can only be talked about as such. To adapt to space constraints, I'll talk about the covers ("Waiting For A Superman", "Love Vigilantes", and "Such Great Heights") altogether- they're all fantastic reinterpretations of the originals, and great additions to your collection. Admittedly, "Swans And The Swimming" immediately caught my ear as one of the more notable pieces, possessing a strong background part to counter a soft vocal approach seemingly broaching the subjects of youth and beauty. It's made better when set up against the slightly plodding "Call Your Boys," a track that can be enjoyable in its place.

Skipping ahead, Disc 2 (if you get the CD version) starts with one of the best tracks here, "Communion Cups and Someone's Coat". This song, unlike almost all of the others, legitimately sounds different than the larger collection of I&W work, with a quick and more active guitar part bouncing pleasantly with the vocal harmonies. I'd say the second disc is definitely the more pleasant (and dare I say better of the two) collection of songs, but once it's on your media library, it pretty much all melts into one experience, save the previously mentioned demarcation line. "Belated Promise Ring" strolls along briskly in the same mood as the last track. "God Made the Automobile" kicks in next with a delightful mix of shakers, radiant guitar and a beautiful vocal chorus that builds as you go. Finally, the good mood mellows slightly with "Homeward These Shoes," which is a completely new track. Going ahead once again, "Sinning Hands" continues to cool us down from the quick opening pace of the disc, with a relaxing, yet active melody. In comparison to the smooth last song, "No Moon" gives off a smokey and choppy mood, but one that still works well, given the juxtaposition.

Hitting the home stretch here, "Serpent Charmer" brings an exotic sound I have not really seen much from Beam before, but it's definitely a welcome one. "Carried Home" brings us a similar, foreign feel, but much more mechanical, yet still an enjoyable difference from this we're used to seeing, with the addition of piano doing well to soften the song's persona at various instances. From there, you may be taken aback by the "jazz" number, "Kingdom of the Animals," which employs a very lively and youthful piano piece, mixed with tambourine to create more sounds that have rarely, if ever, been heard by Iron & Wine. "Arms of the Thief" sounds like dirty southern rock and roll- something else new and different- and once again employs piano, as well as some electronic elements, to create a fantastic presentation. We end with the longest track on the record, "The Trapeze Swinger," which, for the most part, re-establishes the sound we're all accustomed to, but still incorporate some novel elements that differentiate it and make it a fair compliment to the other material at the same time.

So, after that marathon of an album, I must say, I sit here pleased with the first disc, but in awe of the second disc. If the second one had been released by itself, it would contend for album of the year, while the first half would just blend into the pack. Since they are released together though, I will evaluate them as such. I commend the risks taken, but must still consider the ones which were never attempted in the early going. If I were Beam, I'd go in the direction of the second record for future recordings. I know it won't happen, but I'd be extremely happy to see it. Try this one out if you enjoy Iron & Wine, or just relaxing music in general. Similarities include Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird, and Ray LaMontagne.

Rating: 7.5/10

Best Track: "Kingdom of the Animals" (unfortunately not up right now, but check out "The Trapeze Swinger" live)

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