Iron & Wine,
Woman King
(Sub Pop, 2005)

Sub Pop Records may be best known for their role in introducing the world to the Seattle grunge scene; their early releases by Nirvana, Soundgarden and others put this independent label on the map. But since the early 1990s heyday of grunge, Sub Pop has branched out to embrace a wide range of edgy alternative styles. Their diverse roster currently includes Victoria, British Columbia's Hot Hot Heat, Albuquerque, New Mexico's The Shins and the Seattle- and LA-based outfit The Postal Service.

Which brings us to Sam Beam. Sam lives about as far from Seattle as one can manage and still be within the continental United States. Hailing from Miami, Sam records under the moniker Iron & Wine. And, similar to his geographical distance from his record label, his quiet, hypnotic songs are about as far from grunge as it's possible be within the realm of American popular music. Sam's is music built on a simple foundation of acoustic guitar and understated vocals; he's part of the grand folk tradition of the singer-songwriter.

Based on the four or five older Iron & Wine tracks that I've heard on compilations, on Seattle radio station KEXP and on the Iron & Wine website, Woman King marks a move toward a richer, more layered production style. There's a new emphasis on percussion and electric instrumentation, but fans of Beam's earlier material will certainly not be put off. The studio work does nothing to mask Beam's ethereal, wispy vocal delivery on these new songs. In fact, the more powerful musical arrangements provide a contrast that enhances the subdued vocals.

Once again recorded with the very capable production assistance of Brian Deck at Chicago's Engine Studios, Iron & Wine's music is still essentially about melody and literate, thoughtful lyrics. Deck's ongoing collaborative work with Iron & Wine is one in which the song is always the focal point.

Woman King does take a turn toward the mythic, with some lyrics feeling as though they'd be at home in an Arthurian setting. "Hundred years, hundred more, someday we may see a woman king, sword in hand, swing at some evil and bleed." But from that same song, "wristwatch time" and "shot gun shell" have a modernity that is intriguingly incongruous. Like the percussion I mentioned earlier, this lyrical contrast augments rather than interferes with the overall impression I took away from the track. "Woman King" is a terrific song. The melody is infectious, the production complex and clean at the same time, and the lyric is beautifully constructed.

Nearly the equals of the title track are the songs "Jezebel" and "Evening on the Ground (Lilith's Song)." "Evening..." is propelled along by a repetitive musical undercurrent that rushes beneath a melody made up of a series of whole notes followed by a succession of eighth notes. The result is a stuttering rhythmic ride that ends too soon.

Of the six songs on this new release, only "Grey Stables" didn't really work for me. It's sung in falsetto and I don't think Beam's breathy vocal technique works particularly well up an octave. But overall Woman King is a wonderful, but brief, disc that left me longing for more from Iron & Wine.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 14 May 2005

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