The Shepherd's Dog

Sam Beam’s music comes at you like a mirage in the desert. You notice (you think) a shimmering movement in the distance, its shape indiscernible. You find yourself moving towards it until finally, there it is in front of you – real. The wavering form takes shape and now you settle into the oasis. Beam’s new release, recorded under the moniker “Iron & Wine”, is the culmination of an evolutionary track that took him from indie lo-fi performer to one of his generation’s most original folk-rock artists.

The Shepherd’s Dog features a myriad of instruments: acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, keyboards, percussion and horns are easy enough to pick out in the mix. There also plenty of foreign influences weaving through the songs. Reggae, dub, and African rhythms set off the oblique mysticism in Beam’s stream of consciousness lyrics. Although I’m never sure exactly what Beam is singing about, the music imbues a sense of spirituality and tenderness. That’s standard for Beam, whose earlier albums also featured intriguing yet mysterious lyrics. However, Beam has stated that the album’s theme is political confusion; all the more impressive that he maintains his sense of equilibrium and measured calm.

Where this album differs from past releases is in its multilayered arrangements and intricate production. Beam has been touring and recording with the Tucson-based band Calexico and their influence on his work is clear – band members Joey Burns and Paul Niehaus perform on the disc. (Jazz musicians Matt Lux and Rob Burger also are featured). Beam allows his songs to stretch into jams that rise to crescendo level. The title track is a hypnotic example of his new found experimentation with jam-rock. “Boy With a Coin” is arguably Beam’s first true “single” in that it makes for easy radio play.

What remains the same throughout Beam’s recording are his hushed, almost whispered vocals. This approach was perfect for his sparely produced early releases and it works surprisingly well even with the more full sound of The Shepherd’s Dog. Beam’s voice floats above the swirling amalgamation of sounds, offering direction like a verbal compass.

Sam Beam’s background in film (he taught Film and Cinematography at Miami International University of Arts & Design) has had an impact on the type of atmospheric music that he composes. With The Shepherd’s Dog he has created a sweeping panorama of sound. And like an adventurous filmmaker he doesn’t tell us the story, but invites us to venture into another world and decide for ourselves what the message is.

Rosemary Welsch, WYEP Afternoon Mix host