‘Beam’ leaves front porch for new album

Sam Beam and Co. scrounge deeper into indie soundscape to tell their spooky tales.

Becky Lang

Sam Beam has finally left the Deep South; never mind that the bushy-bearded, banjo-toting force behind Iron & Wine is actually from Miami. One listen to his old LPs, “The Creek Drank the Cradle” and “Our Endless Numbered Days,” makes it clear that he’s divining some kind of Bible-toting, plantation-wandering spirit.

Known for singing in whispery tones that he carries out for an almost impossible amount of time, his low-maintenance, low-fi songs often created a mood of reverent sadness. On his new album, “The Shepherd’s Dog,” Beam tones down his characteristic quiescence in order to explore a vast array of moods.

“Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog),” is one of the most experimental songs on the album, throwing a jazz bass line into the usual steel-string arrangements, eventually building into a keyboard solo fit for a Chicago bar. Beam’s voice is more ominous and quick, and a few techno-echoes cement the fact that we’re not in the boggy swamps of Mississippi anymore.

The album even reaches a jolly note with “The Devil Never Sleeps,” a swing-paced jaunt with a fluttering, euphoric piano lick. Backup singers fuel Beam along, resulting in what sounds like a show tune about hitch-hikers and gypsies.

A nomadic feeling is definitely present, as if Beam has gone on a quest and wants to write about the dark corners of the country he’s discovered, but needs a new voice to express it.

In the process, this album showcases a lot of new studio toys, but not as masterfully as “Woman King,” the all-too-brief EP released in 2005, which used hi-fi equipment to expand his array of wooden instruments into a soundscape so rich that you can almost smell the soil.

The new feel isn’t necessarily worse, but it’s a more awkward fit for a singer with Beam’s unusual gentility.

Luckily, many songs on the album still showcase what Iron & Wine is best at: stretching Biblical parables and fairy tales painfully into reality, where they begin to look more disturbed than divine.

Lyrics like, “A girl with a bird she found in the snow Ö flew up her gown/that’s how she knows/God made her eyes for crying at birth and then left the ground to circle the earth,” display Beam’s mastery for placing archetypal images into exotic scenarios, avoiding the clichés that things like smoke, mountains and ghosts so often fall into.

Old themes reappear on “The Shepherd’s Dog,” as Beam constantly struggles to define abstractions. “Love was a father’s flag and sunk like a shank,” he sings on “Pagan Angel in a Borrowed Car,” continuing with definitions that began on his first album, which describes love as “the dream you enter though I shake and shake and shake you.”

This is probably one of the more compelling folk albums of the year, although not Beam’s best work. The subtle darkness of his images, which earned him the label of “southern gothic,” will always sound better with his old train-track chugging chords and static recording, which are all the better for channeling buried tales of birth and dying.