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Iron and Wine - Our Endless Numbered Days

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Artist: Iron and Wine

Album: Our Endless Numbered Days

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Mar. 21, 2004

“There is gold hidden deep in the ground,” sings Sam Beam on the opening track of Iron and Wine’s sophomore full-length, but the instrumentation – articulated guitar plucking and gliding, frictionless steel – is as polished as a wedding band. Clearly this marks a substantive shift for Beam, whose 2002 collection of Southern, half-gothic lullabies capitalized roundly on their bald, lo-fi origins. By filtering autumnal harmonies through a sawdust cloud of tape hiss, The Creek Drank The Cradle placed itself comfortably in the tradition of raw American folk even while its melody lines evoked John Denver more frequently than any of John Fahey’s muses. Warm and accessible, the record was also deceptively novel; instead of sandpapering his songs, Beam shaded their contours with gentle overdubbing, carving a new pocket out of a terrain that's largely been strip-mined.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone faulting Beam for recording his second full-length in the same manner as his first because Creek’s demo quality is so integral to its appeal. Nevertheless Our Endless Numbered Days finds Beam paired up with Brian Deck, an engineer adept at chasing the last audible vestiges of every twanged string (see Califone, Red Red Meat and most of the Perishable roster). With Deck’s recording finesse clearing the way for new varieties of nuance – even as it limits the rough-hewn avenues of expression that distinguished Creek – Beam and his troupe color many of the songs on Our Endless Numbered Days with added instrumentation and vocal accompaniment. The opener, “On Your Wings,” is constructed much like a Califone song, with low, impeccably precise guitar plucking adorned by all manner of bells, clacks, and what sound like wind-up toys. Evoking an evening orchestra of buzzing and hissing cicadas, Beam whispers over-top, beckoning from the far corner of a dewy backyard. It’s too cluttered and abstract an approach for a singer whose gentle melodies work best when foregrounded. Unlike Califone, where Tim Rutili’s voice feels like a balanced part of a larger equation, Iron and Wine songs rely on Beam’s hushed vocals as a fulcrum.

For this reason, the best songs on Our Endless Numbered Days feature only Beam’s voice and his guitar – swooping arpeggios, spun yarns, and maybe the distant, occasional hint of his sister Sara’s background vocals. “Naked As We Came” is one of these: with Beam’s voice amplified from its previous whisper to something incrementally less fragile but emphatically more present, the vocals and guitar climb and cycle in soft, sweet unison. Creek felt entirely correct in sustaining the tempo, style, and emotional mood of songs like “Naked As We Came” across the span of its full forty minutes; Beam’s voice cradled you in its fatherly arms, and its melancholy stories of lion’s manes and crumb-stealing birds became the stuff of balmy summer night dreaming. On Our Endless Numbered Days Beam feels some pressure to subtly expand his repertoire, but the swampy blues of tracks like “Teeth In The Grass” and particularly “Free Until They Cut Me Down” interrupt the aforementioned mood like unwelcome hiccups.

Fortunately, much of the rest of Our Endless Numbered Days is made up of the tightest and most affecting melodies that Beam’s thus far put to tape. “Sunset Soon Forgotten,” with its loping guitar line and quiet steel backing finds Sam and Sara hiding “bottles in the well,” skipping down junebug streets” with “band-aid children (who) chased the dog away.” This is a mythic South haunted not by the Faulknerian ghosts of the Civil War but by the personal specters of lost childhood, and Beam captures the bittersweetness of that theme in the hushed tenor of his voice. “Naked As We Came” and “Sunset Soon Forgotten,” along with “Each Coming Night,” “Fever Dream,” and “Passing Afternoon,” become the heart of Our Endless Numbered Days. They’re the simplest, loveliest, and most direct songs – less akin to folk heroes like Drake or Dylan than to the terminally un-hip fragility of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme-era Simon and Garfunkel. Which shouldn’t scare anyone off – this is music to soften the hardest of hearts.

By Nathan Hogan

Other Reviews of Iron and Wine

The Creek Drank the Cradle

The Sea & The Rhythm

The Shepherd's Dog

Around the Well

Kiss Each Other Clean

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View all articles by Nathan Hogan

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