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The Shepherd's Dog
Artist: Iron and Wine
Label: SubPop Records
Length: 12 tracks
It’s an accomplishment when a band can expand their sound dramatically without sacrificing what made them good in the past. Sam Beam, the main man behind Iron and Wine, has done just this.
The Shepherd’s Dog is a kaleidoscope of styles. Over twelve excellent songs, they successfully play African folk, funk, bar rock, exotic world music, and a couple throwbacks to the American folk they put out before. Not a single song is a misstep. They play each genre they jump to with ease and refinement, so that when the familiar folk style of songs like “Innocent Bones” or “Resurrection Fern” suddenly shift into the funky vibe of “Wolves” or the rocking stomp of “The Devil Never Sleeps,” the transition somehow feels completely natural. It shows that Iron and Wine have always been capable of this before. They just never attempted it until now.
It wouldn’t be an Iron and Wine album if it didn’t retain the beautiful intimacy of their previous releases. The Shepherd’s Dog is no less captivating, though it is far more daring. The album has an early emotional high point in the song “Carousel”, which has a heartrendingly gorgeous melody with Sam Beam’s vocals drowned in studio effects and guitars laced beautifully within. It’s the most perfect example of what the band has done with their sound. They’ve added color and depth that enriches the beauty that was present before.
Religious content abounds in the lyrics of The Shepherd’s Dog. Nearly every song has some reference to an element of Christianity, from the Holy Ghost to empty chapel pews. Because so much of Beam’s lyrics paint images rather than tell clearly any message, it can require a lot of careful listening to understand what is being portrayed. We have Christians playing poker when Jesus returns, women praying for “good legs and Japanese cars”, a dog who sacrifices its life for its master when a black bear threatens and another dog that flees when the local town spins endlessly into original sin.
Like the music, all of these
themes link together beautifully as the album progresses. The production
is vibrant and rich, making every song fall into place without a hitch.
The band has used the studio to their artistic advantage, making sounds
and moods that only deepen the creativity of the music being made instead
of simply making it sound more expensive. Those who like their music
rough and unpolished may dislike this album at first, but it shouldn’t
be a feeling that lasts. This is an exciting new release from a folk
band that has taken a chance and pulled it off with flying colors.