Iron & Wine,
Our Endless Numbered Days
(Sub Pop, 2004)

Fittingly, Sam Beam's first assemblage of songs produced by someone other than himself, his first foray into a professional recording studio, his first significant move toward broader instrumentation, begins with a prayer. In "On Your Wings," the opening track from Our Endless Numbered Days, Beam whispers, "God, give us love in the time that we have."

And there is love on this album -- a love of melody, a love of words, a love of the images that the interplay between the two can create.

Our Endless Numbered Days is the second full-length CD from Miami's Sam Beam, who records and performs as Iron & Wine. His previous releases on Seattle's ultra-cool Sub Pop Records -- a single, an album and a five-song EP -- all had a homemade, low-budget feel. They were, after all, inexpensive, self-produced recordings. Yet they contained something magical. They had an honesty and subdued passion that broke through the inadequacies of the stripped-down recording process.

Rolling Stone Magazine said of Iron & Wine's first album, The Creek Drank the Cradle, "the gentle music might lull you into drowsiness, but the sharp undercurrents in the lyrics are guaranteed to snap you wide awake."

On Our Endless Numbered Days those magical qualities and sharp undercurrents have been polished and strengthened under the careful guidance of producer/drummer Brian Deck. Deck shows a tremendous respect for Beam's songwriting and vocal style in the restrained arrangements he's recorded for this album. In addition to Beam's relaxed, finger-picked guitar, there's an assortment of percussive textures here: shakers, guiros, bass and snare drums, tambourines and cabasas. As well, various banjo, slide guitar, piano and mandolin embellishments allow the songs to take on more distinct moods than has been the case on earlier discs.

Yet this is still a CD that needs to be heard repeatedly before its distinguishing features really grab hold. Beam's whispered, double-tracked vocals are so dominant a feature, that it's only after a fair number of plays that the subtle melodies and spare arrangements begin to assert their individual personalities. Among the strongest tracks here are "Free Until They Cut Me Down," "Sodom, South Georgia" and "Naked As We Came," each of which presents a separate perspective on the intersection of love and death. The lyrics' meanings, however, are left to the listener to interpret, as the songs are anything but linear narratives. "Sodom, South Georgia/woke like a tree full of bees/buried in christmas/bows and a blanket of weeds."

"Cinder & Smoke" would also have been among my favorite songs if it had been shortened from its running time of 5:44 to a more reasonable three and a half or four minutes. The lyrics are completed by that point and two minutes plus of "ahh, ahh, ahh" simply causes this lovely song to become tedious. The album closes with "Passing Afternoon," another beautiful melody, another cryptic lyric. "There are things we can't recall, blind as night that finds us all/winter tucks her children in, her fragile china dolls/but my hands remember hers, rolling around the shaded ferns/naked arms, her secrets still like songs I've never learned."

In addition to being a musician Sam Beam is a cinematographer, and one suspects that when he teaches at the Miami International University of Art & Design his approach is more interpretive than documentarian. He brings a strong visual component to his lyrics, but it's most often detailed close ups that he shows us while the larger picture remains soft focused. Our Endless Numbered Days is more about mood than meaning; it's evening music. So relax, dim the lights and let Iron & Wine's music wash over you.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 2 July 2005

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