I was at my favorite record store in the world just the other day, The Soundgarden in downtown Syracuse, for those who also know of it, and as usual, I spent a good deal of money there. One of the things I picked up was Iron & Wine's The Sea & The Rhythm. It's only a 5-song EP, but I wasn't aware it even existed. I'm a big fan of both The Creek Drank The Cradle and the more recent Our Endless Numbered Days. Chronologically, and sound-wise, this album fits right between those two stellar albums.
If you haven't been fortunate enough to hear Sam Beam's brand of lo-fi folk, than you've been missing out on some of the most enjoyable albums I've heard in years. Every song beautifully tells a story, complete with vivid imagery and strong symbolism. Beam uses nothing but an acoustic guitar and, occasionally, a banjo to tell his stories of loss, regret, and in this album's instance, religion. While at the core, the characters in his songs seem to have abandoned all hope of something better, they always end up with at least a sign of hope, albeit usually a small one. While the subject matter in Beam's lyrics isn't exactly the same as it's been on the other two Iron & Wine albums, the tempos and overall feel of the songs remain quite similar. That's not to say the lack of change hurts this EP, because that would be completely and totally off base.
The tone of this album is set from the very beginning on the album's first track, "Beneath The Balcony." To me, the focus of Beam's songs has always been the story in the lyrics. Sure, the guitar is there, but it's the words that he wants to resonate in everyone's head long after this CD leaves their player. The lyrics are well-written in every facet, be it symbolism, imagery, or just how well the lyrics and the music behind it create the song itself; "And how he prays to find a man to blame / For every sleepless night he spends / For every well he warned me of / But wound up falling in." Or later in the song, the religous undertones come out; "Somewhere, the soft-handed boys / Bleeding hearts, and worker bees / Give the holy mother begging change / Christ across her knees / And now she prays to find a man to blame / For every loveless night she waits." Now, before I go further, I'd like to make sure everyone understands that this isn't a Christian album. As far as I know, Beam has no formal ties to Christianity, at least not through his music. He's not preaching, in any stretch of the imagination, just telling his stories.
By far, my favorite song on the album is the title track. It's a slow but captivating song and evokes powerful imagery with every beautifully-sung line. Also important to know is that since this is the EP's longest song, at a bit more than five minutes, it allows for the most instrumentation. When the lyrics give way, the slow plucking remains, and just as beautifully. That's not to say the lyrics aren't the song's driving force, as they still remain so; "Tonight, we're the sea and the salty breeze / The milk from your breast is on my lips / And lovlier words from your mouth to me / When salty my sweat and fingertips / Our hands they seek the end of afternoon / My hands believe and move over you." It all works perfectly. The subtle guitar lulls you in, and the lyrics will never release their tightening grasp.
One of the album's most powerful tracks, "Jesus The Mexican Boy," tells the story of a boy whose only goal in life, it seems, is to spread his generosity and trust to others, not looking to gain a thing in return, yet, betrayed by his friend by the time things are through. A reference to Judas continues with one of the album's themes, but it's only to add that feeling of betrayal in the story that Beam masterfully tells.
This is an album that's going to be in rotation for me for a while. If you've never heard Iron & Wine, this is a good starting point. Fans of Nick Cave, Teitur, and maybe even a more mellow version of Modest Mouse's The Lonesome Crowded West would find this album to be a great one, and so will anybody else who appreciates good music and storytelling.