Guitar-and-Beard Man Broadens Sound, Loses Us Along the Way

Iron & Wine
Kiss Each Other Clean
Warner Bros.

On his 2007 record The Shepherd’s Dog, Sam Beam — under moniker Iron & Wine — swapped his pared-down folk sound for a full band, adding brooding percussion and a variety of globe-trotting influences. The result was not only interesting, but also surprisingly radio-friendly (Beam made it on the “Twilight” soundtrack for a reason).

Four years later, even Kristen Stewart would be shocked to hear the pompous style Beam has championed on follow-up album Kiss Each Other Clean.

Beam’s once quiet, whispery vocals have abandoned all restraint, and his acoustic sound is now drowned out by cascading jazz horns. In small doses — as evidenced on The Shepherd’s Dog — it’s an effective experiment. But at such a constant extreme, Beam’s loose assemblage of noises and instruments sounds more puzzled than put-together.

On “Rabbit Will Run,” for example, Neil Young- esque electric guitar riffs are layered on top of peculiar hoots and Caribbean drums. Beam is trying out the musical experiments of ‘70s folk artists like Cat Stevens, to schizophrenic effect.

The effort is admirable and the experiments that do work are a step in the right direction. The psychedelic finale “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me” tries out a Pink Floyd- style sound that could have worked well for the rest of the album. It’s like an old-school jam band breakdown — swirling from horn crescendos to an escalating sing-a-long, before clattering to a climactic end. But when the experiment goes badly — with such an overwhelming assemblage of global instruments and folk standbys — less really might have been more.

When Bob Dylan first plugged in his electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, he took his folk roots and acoustic harmonies to new heights. Maybe Beam wants to do the same here, but the album is more a disorienting scramble than a musical revolution, though a few moments of brilliance slip their way in along the way. (5/10)

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