Friday, September 28, 2007

#21: Iron & Wine>The Shepherd's Dog>I shall not want

Artist : Iron & Wine
Album : The Shepherd's Dog (3rd Domestic LP)
Release : 09.25.07
Year Founded : 2002
Label Name : Sub Pop
Catalog # : 710
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Digipak
Members : Sam Beam, Sarah Beam, Jim Becker, Rob Burger, Joey Burns, Brian
Deck, EJ Holowicki, John Katke, Matt Lux, Patrick McKinney, Paul Niehaus
Runtime : 49:45
Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season : Summer
iTunes Worthy Tracks : White Tooth Man, Lovesong of the Buzzard, Carousel, House by the Sea, Boy with a Coin
Sounds Like : Nick DrakePink Moon
Rating : A

Iron & Wine's The Shepherd's Dog maintains the same emotional, thematic and artistic arc as his previous album, Our Endless Numbered Days. While it maintains — like Endless — a melancholic moodiness, it will not likely induce fits of weeping as did Sam Beam's shockingly stark introduction to the music world The Creek Drank the Cradle. The new album also continues the trend toward fuller, more complex arrangements and clearer, more inclusive production.

Still firmly at the epicenter though is Beam's whispery and warbly yet confident voice and his uncanny ability to twist his lachrymose words around the song's edges like tendrils around a fencepost. In short, his phrasing is flawless and adds even more gravity to the already leaden tales he tells.

"Lovesong of the Buzzard" is the first song that is perhaps surprising in the weight of its sound, as it is suffused with a summery lightness. The propulsive percussion and the boomy and bouncy addition of upright bass conjures Sam Prekop's solo work, which is interesting because the very next song, "Carousel," immediately brought to mind similar sounds from Archer Prewitt's seminal In the Sun. It is simple and focused and lonely and the effects applied to the vocal only increase the song's distance. And "House by the Sea" creates an immensely enjoyable swampland chorus of toads, crickets and cicadas by treating nearly everything, even the stringed instruments, as percussion.

The album's single, "Boy with a Coin," is unavoidable. It is The Shepherd's Dog's most haunting and delicately displayed piece. It is not only the album's best song, but one of Beam's best ever and certainly one of this year's best. Handclaps are so simple a device and yet so effective here as they march through the verse and do double-time through the "ooh" and "ahh" chorus. The guitar, with its curlicue pulls and deft slides, sounds like a cat trying to tip-toe through a nighttime stempede. It has perhaps the fewest words of all the songs, but there isn't a wasted phrase among them.

A boy with a coin he found in the weeds, with bullets and pages of trade magazines
Close to a car that flipped on the turn when god left the ground to circle the world
A girl with a bird she found in the snow, then flew up her gown and that's how she knows
That god made her eyes for crying at birth and then left the ground to circle the earth
A boy with a coin he crammed in his jeans, then, making a wish, he tossed in the sea
And walked to a town that all of us burned, when god left the ground to circle the world

No Iron & Wine album will ever be so startlingly intimate as The Creek Drank the Cradle. You just can't recapture the circumstances surrounding that album and how it came to be. But often that's exactly what Beam's most heart-wrenching songs are about — the inability to recapture or relive life's most precious moments — in a word, impermanence. The diversity of Beam's sound has certainly grown since the early days when he thought music might just be a nice hobby, but the feelings that his work evokes are as real as ever.

Friday, September 14, 2007

#20: The Go! Team>Proof of Youth>White men can't jump, but white boys and girls can make you want to

Artist : The Go! Team
Album : Proof of Youth (2nd Domestic LP)
Release : 09.11.07
Year Founded : 2005
Label Name : Sub Pop
Catalog # : 750
Packaging Type : Double-Disc Jewel Case (Album Disc w/Bonus Disc)
Members : Jamie Bell, Sam Dook, Ian Parton, Chi Fukami Taylor, Kaori Tsuchida, Ninja
Runtime : 36:20
Area Tour Dates : 10.25.07 @ The Paradise, Boston
Sound Season : Summer
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Grip Like a Vice, Titanic Vandalism, Flashlight Fight
Rating : A-

The Go! Team are the perfect soundtrack to a Dr. J highlight reel. The kind where cartoon stars shoot out of the net.

The songs often have a synthesized old school hip-hop handclap beat, with live drums over the top to fill out the energy. And lots more — I mean, this stuff is seriously dense, like grandma's meatloaf.

There are empassioned blasts of funk-inspired horns, and things like recorder, glockenspiel and harmonica that add flourishes of psychedelic detail. The bouncy bass really gives the groove a spine and the guitar lends melody support and texture behind the vocals, which are clearly the focal point (with the exception of occassional instrumental tracks, which are fewer in number and less developed than on Thunder Lightning Strike).

The vocals are really what makes The Go! Team stand out as something different. They're part old school hip-hop (think J.J Fad), part cheerleading squad and part double-dutch team. They're recorded and presented in such a way that the listener can't really distinguish them from the samples that burst around them. And just in case you didn't make all the painfully obvious hip-hop connections all over Proof of Youth, Chuck D comes in to school your ass on "Flashlight Fight," easily the most kickass, nod your head, all-out slam dunk anthem ever.

The only thing that works against the team with this release is that is has lost some of its diversity of sound. There are only two instrumentals on this album as compared with the five on their debut album and rather than using the time away from the vocals to do something a little different, it is instead pretty much just another party song minus the "rah, rah, rah." Thunder Lightning Strike had a lot more garage band sound, which really was a great contrast to the hip-hop elements. And although Proof of Youth is still decidedly rock, I can't help feeling that some of the great songwriting has been squashed in favor of creating a battering ram of happy.

The Go! Team do what they do really well, and that is make you want to go out and take over the world by shooting everyone with your fun laser. Sad emo boys would become chimps wearing beanies riding mini-motorbikes, stuffy company execs would become pro laser tag players and we'd all be basejumping off of chocolate mountains into rivers of pudding. Who can't see the beauty in such a world?