I should never set expectations when it comes to music. When was the last time an album was exactly as good or as bad or as neutral as you thought it would be prior to its release? It never works out the way you want it to. Take Iron and Wine’s latest release, The Shepherd’s Dog. Coming off of the minimally successful collaboration with Arizona’s Calexico, 2005’s In the Reins, many Sam Beam fans were expecting a return to the slow and soothing sounds of his last full-length, Our Endless Numbered Days (one of my favorite albums of the past ten years). But these fans, including myself, were pretty far off in their predictions.
Iron and Wine is the brainchild of Sam Beam, who was raised in South Carolina but now resides in Miami, and is known mainly for his low-fidelity acoustic folk sound. He made multiple rough home recordings in the early 2000’s, and many of those songs would make it to his first three Sub Pop releases, starting with 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle. Most people know him for his cover of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” featured in the overrated film Garden State. That seems like enough formulaic background information to dive right into the real meat of the review (or veg patty for all you vegan readers?).
The Shepherd’s Dog opens with “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car,” an upbeat folk-y song, complete with guitar, banjo, piano, violins, soft drums, and hushed harmonized vocals. This song kind of rubbed me the wrong way, reminding me of crossover bands that are a little too out of my genre range for me to really enjoy, very atypical of Sam Beam and his musical entourage. The second track, “White Tooth Man,” slowly fades in to echoing drums and what sounds like a sitar, accompanied by a single-note bass line. This, again, was not the Iron and Wine I had come to know and love and did not seem to fit similarly with anything in his discography.
I waited through the entire album, finding a few gems that I thoroughly enjoyed, including “Carousel” and the album’s first single “Boy with a Coin.” But even though I liked these songs, they were strangely unlike anything that Sam Beam has created, including 2005’s Woman King EP, which boasted a more full-band sound rather than Sam Beam by himself. He seems to go down the path he started with In the Reins, with a more eclectic, collaborative, genre-combining sound than ever before. I even sense a bit of Grateful Dead with the vocal-less last half of “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog).” The album ends weakly with the unoriginal-sounding melodies of “Flightless Bird, American Mouth.”
All in all, I don’t really think this album is bad, at least for standing on its own. However, I can’t help but long for songs like “Sodom South Georgia” and “Peng! 33,” in which Beam’s singular guitar and vocals count for more than any barrage of instruments on this record ever could. I’m all for Sam Beam writing the songs he wants to write, and I’m all about a record like this being less accessible to the teenage girl demographic that he unfortunately holds. But these songs do not carry enough of his continually original spark of previous recordings to fully enjoy.
5.5 / 10
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