Review : Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean
PitchforkOn 2007's The Shepherd's Dog, Sam Beam reinvented Iron & Wine, building out the whisper-quiet acoustic songs he'd made his name on into a strange and mysterious soundworld, using a full band and mastering the art of multitracking his own voice. It's tempting to think that the hard work was done there-- Beam established a new approach and made a great album in the process-- but Kiss Each Other Clean, the full-band follow-up, is in some ways even more ambitious than its predecessor. He's reaching in a few new directions here, pushing himself hard as a singer, and taking risks, some of which pan out and a few of which don't.
Broadly, Beam at this point is writing by far the most assertive melodies of his career. Not the best, necessarily, but the boldest and most forcefully phrased. Even the song that most clearly ties back to The Shepherd's Dog, album centerpiece "Rabbit Will Run", has a melody that's quite different from anything he's done before. "Rabbit Will Run" is an easy highlight-- the arrangement is fantastically detailed, driven by a heavily layered rhythm track that bubbles with hypnotic thumb piano, and balanced by sections where the rhythm drops out, leaving Beam's voice hovering over a strange mix of sounds that might be a chopped-up pan flute arranged into a loop. The guitar sounds like an old-fashioned modem. It's a weirdly intoxicating mix that exemplifies the imagination Beam brings to bear on his fuller sound-- he's not just putting some drums and bass behind his guitar and voice.
Some of his bolder decisions carry mixed results. Beam brings in a horn section on "Big Burned Hand" and "Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me", and it works well on the latter, the album's seven-minute closer. The horns are arranged loosely, responding a bit to the Tinariwen-ish guitar phrase that opens the song and pulling it into territory somewhere near Charles Mingus' "Haitian Fight Song". The horn scrum is nicely offset by Beam's layered, tight self-harmonies on the chorus, and it's also complemented by the ragged lead guitar part. On "Big Burned Hand", though, the honking sax is used as a device to try and make the song funky, and it's not a look Beam's really figured out yet-- it lumbers along for four minutes and is the one song where Beam's risks yield no reward....full text
Suite101Great artists have a habit of upsetting their audience by defying its expectations, and that’s exactly what Sam Beam has done with the new Iron & Wine album, Kiss Each Other Clean. It marks his move to a major label, Warner Bros., after nearly a decade with Sub Pop, and continues to expand his sound well beyond the quiet acoustic folk of his early work.
Sam Beam defies his fans' expectations, aiming for "more of a focused pop record"
This process actually started with Beam’s last full studio album, The Shepherd’s Dog (2007), but the fuller arrangements and more pronounced rock influences on that set didn’t provoke anywhere near the ire that has greeted Kiss Each Other Clean. A look at the Iron & Wine shoutbox on Last.fm finds it dominated by bitter, angry arguments over Beam’s new direction.
It’s doubtful that Beam himself cares much about these negative assessments. He described the record to SPIN in an October 2010 interview as “more of a focused pop record. It sounds like the music people heard in their parent’s car growing up… that early-to-mid-70’s FM, radio-friendly music”, and it’s precisely this quality that the album’s detractors have focused on, decrying the album as overproduced.
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Kiss Each Other Clean is more ambitious than Beam claims, incorporating elements of jazz and funk
But Beam’s own description isn’t to be trusted entirely. While Kiss Each Other Clean does contain some songs that could have come straight out of a 70’s rock playlist, most notably “Half Moon”, that influence is mingled with far less conventional leanings. Beam tosses jazz horn sections, angelic backing vocals, and deep, resonant bass lines into the mix, and the result could only be called “a focused pop record” in Beam’s own mind.
There’s only one song on Kiss Each Other Clean that fully meets that pop description. “Tree by the River” is one of the catchiest numbers Beam’s ever written and a high point of the album, full of sparkling keyboard ornamentations and a wistful lyric on the ravages of time and the failure of the present to live up to the past. In a way, Beam has written a song that reflects much of his audience’s view of his current music. But it would be hard to find fault with “Tree by the River”, given its melodic strength and the beauty of Beam’s vocals.
The songs that open and close Kiss Each Other Clean are defiantly experimental
Elsewhere, Kiss Each Other Clean enters more experimental territory. The album is bookended by songs full of layers of electronics and buzzing guitars, a running cacophony underlying Beam’s voice with an atmosphere of tension. The opening song, “Walking Far from Home”, even applies auto-tune to Beam’s voice, as though to make a clear statement that Beam is leaving all traces of his unadorned folk past behind.
But it’s the final song, “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me”, that takes Beam’s new approach to its noisiest extremes. Over the course of seven minutes, it combines the jazzier elements of the two songs that precede it with a heavier rock element, and slowly builds in intensity until the final minute achieves a haunting incantatory power. It’s not really pop or rock or jazz, it’s a combination of all three that hearkens back to the experimental fusions of the 70’s while avoiding their overwrought pretensions....full text
MusicomhSam Beam has quietly been building a body of work that makes him one of contemporary music's strongest and most inventive songwriters. He is a rarity in that he has been given the freedom and time to grow into himself, his recent work veering far from his initial rustic, southern gothic template. Kiss Each Other Clean is his most stylistically and texturally varied creation to date and it is full of surprises.
Beam runs riots with sonic elements he gently introduced on its predecessor The Shepherd's Dog. Some of it (the saxophones and bubbling synthesisers) will prove too much for ardent admirers of his sparer sound. For those in his audience prepared to explore new territory along with him, it will be something of a treat.
He is a writer unafraid of apparent paradoxes. His music effortlessly combines classic influences with a distinctly modern sheen. The hazy, soft-focus nostalgia of Tree By The River possibly betrays the influence of Fleetwood Mac, most specifically the songs of Christine McVie, whilst Big Burned Hand has a Little Feat-esque light funk groove. Elsewhere, Monkeys Uptown is built on a weird configuration of acoustic and electronic percussion and a delightfully slinky, plucked bass line. Your Fake Name Is Good Enough appears to be several songs packed into one (definitely the boldest move away from Beam's usual reliance on repetition), moving from a curious Afro-motorik to a half time rock feel.
Beam's truly extraordinary lyrics are similarly based on compelling, enigmatic juxtapositions. In Walking Far From Home, a list of poetic images that recalls Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall, Beam contrasts the beautiful with the ugly ("I saw flowers on a hillside and a millionaire pissing on the lawn" or "I saw sickness bloom in fruit trees") and uses his trademark unusual metaphors ("My prayers grew like weeds along the road"). Literate imagery typically pervades the entire album, particularly in the expansive centrepiece Rabbit Can Run, where "judgement is just like a cup that we share". It's clear that Beam's songs are stories in the folk tradition, but they have an elusive, mysterious quality that will keep listeners guessing as to their real meaning. Beam's intention is perhaps more to create a feeling - reflection or empathy perhaps - and to build his vocabulary around that. The songs here seemingly aim to get beyond good and evil - to a world where kind people do bad things and where events cannot be neatly categorised or understood....full text
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