Review by Monte Holman
Typically the word prolific translates to mostly crap. Crap lacking staying power. Being prolific is evidence of a wonderfully active imagination, sure, but it also improves the chance that the material will be derivative of itself and boring. Lucky for us, despite Sam Beam’s creative fecundity, Iron and Wine has yet to produce an insignificant record.
Hailing from Miami, Florida, Beam is an uncharacteristic product of the beach city’s Big Willie style. Somehow the song of the south leaked out of Alabama, through the Redneck Riviera of western Florida, and down the east coast. Who knew the community that brought us hot Latin nights filled with shiny shirted cokeheads could also house folks sporting beards, eating boiled peanuts, and sipping cans of Dixie?
Woman King, Beam’s fourth record (two LPs, two EPs) in two-and-a-half years, offers six beautiful tracks and once again soothes us with acoustic guitars, banjos, hushed falsettos and tender harmonies. In this EP, Beam continues to explore polished production. The album, trading four-track basement recording for the big time, was recorded at Engine Studios in Chicago by Brian Deck and includes more instrumentation than past records. Slightly off-key pianos, violins, percussion (including tasteful bongos, two words I never thought I’d see together).
There are those who will consider Iron and Wine’s gloss and added flourishes a loss of integrity or roots or something, but come on. The Creek Drank the Cradle and The Sea and the Rhythm have their charm and innocence, but one has to move on. And Woman King moves with subtlety.
Beam keeps traveling down the country road in tracks like “Freedom Hangs Like Heaven.” This one contains a breakdown of what sounds like tin cups and glass bottles tapped with sticks. But Beam also investigates non-folksy noises and rhythms. The title track features a distorted bass, and the closer, “Evening on the Ground (Lilith’s Song),” is damn near jazz, albeit jazz inspired by a union uprising in an old bottle factory. And for those unwilling to give up Iron and Wine’s analog feel, Beam insulates his vocals with tape hiss. Happy? Good.
This short album focuses on women in the biblical sense; that is, biblical themes and images permeate Woman King. Lines from “Freedom” note, “Mary, carry your babe / bound up tight like lips around a whimper / your fingers over my face / blind-eyed Sampson driven to the temple.” The whole EP captures tensions between the sexes, years of constant power struggles. Beam masterfully mixes the personal with the historical, tying his experience to a larger context and avoiding tired phrasing. Songs are chockfull of interesting verbiage and memorable metaphors. It’s intimate; it’s connected.
Woman King builds on what Iron and Wine does best: writing mature, delicate songs. The effortlessness with which Beam composes lovely pastoral lyrics puts us at ease. Iron and Wine’s nonintrusive nature continues to court us, and even if new records and songs will follow steadily, all we can say is please play it again, Sam.