As a long-time Iron and Wine fan, I was intrigued by the announcement of this double-disc release that spans the spectrum of Sam Beam’s musical career. What most call a rarities and b-sides album, I see more of an insight into the progression of Beam’s collaborative sound, compiling many of his strongest tracks that never made it onto his full-length efforts. Given the high volume of unreleased or hard-to-find material Iron and Wine has recorded, the twenty-three tracks chosen for this release seem only appropriate in order to get an accurate cross section of Beam’s career. One thing to keep in mind is that almost none of these songs are outtakes that were scrapped, but ones that are found on out-of-print seven-inches, compilations, and even his first home recordings.
I was under whelmed by Iron and Wine’s last release, The Shepherd's Dog, not because it lacked complexity or pleasant progressions, but because it strayed too far from the lo-fi sound I had come to associate so strongly with Beam and company. Now much later, I can appreciate the direction of his musical endeavors to encompass the freedom that he has certainly earned himself. Not to mention, the limitations of acoustic singer-songwriter songs could lead to a redundancy that he certainly would not let himself fall into. But with this release, Beam gives listeners like me a chance to return to the sounds that I first came to love.
The first disc of Around the Well begins with "Dearest Forsaken," a fitting acoustic track with a Southern twinge, accompanied by the muted vocal style of Iron and Wine’s earlier recordings. The disc continues in a chronological fashion, with crucial unreleased tracks such as “Swans and the Swimming” and a cover of Stereolab’s “Peng! 33.” Throughout these tracks, we can see the minimal but wonderfully placed arpeggio guitar progressions, often complimented by a slide guitar or banjo-type rhythm section. The early blues influence is coupled with the heart-breaking placement of each note, which sheds light on Beam’s most raw and stripped-down songs.
The second disc starts as a progression into the cleaner production style that we began to hear with 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days, with the once-bonus track “Communion Cups and Someone’s Coats.” With this, we hear more peripheral instruments playing a role in each track, on the road towards a more full band sound. On songs like “Sinning Hands” and “Love Vigilantes” we hear more of an extension of Beam’s lo-fi sound, which leads us into a few tracks from the The Shepherd's Dog sessions. Through these, we explore the new sounds and instrumental experimentation that have resulted from Beam’s eclectic musical mind.
To be honest, I could probably talk about this all day. But I’ll spare you by simply saying that this is crucial to any Iron and Wine fan that hasn’t followed these hard-to-find tracks. Even for those who have, this is a great collection to remind you why you still love Beam and his barrage of raw ability. If nothing else, Around the Well gives you a privileged perspective of where this outfit has been, and perhaps some insight into where it might go from here.
7.5 / 10
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