B-side collections are a musical oddity, primarily designed for true fans not looking for hit singles. The thing is, most (if not all) fans already have a good majority of the “unreleased” material, thanks to the fruitful-yet-handy internet. The others? They opt for retail. That brings us to Iron & Wine‘s latest release, Around the Well. The 23-track, two disc collection gathers a whole range of covers and goodies, yet in the end, it tends to play out like a career spanning, greatest hits assembly, built for the less-than-savvy internet fan, and even the casual fan who may have just heard a song or two.
Surprise, surprise, Well starts off early and quiet. Going back to 2002, with “Dearest Forsaken”, gentle whispers and twangy southern folk ignite listeners right off the bat. Beam’s extraordinary acoustic guitar work keeps things warm and feels as intimate as music can get. Building on this intimacy, his cover of Stereolab’s “Peng! 33” delivers an intensely optimistic worldview as the simplistic track oozes with good will. It’s hard to enjoy the lightly plucked guitar and delicate clapping without humming or snapping along, too. Seriously. Then things turn down a notch with his rendition of The Flaming Lips’ “Waitin’ for a Superman”, a tune he makes so incredibly quiet yet so emotionally loud, as well. As Beams sings out, “Is it getting heavy? I thought it was already as heavy as can be,” it seems as if every word has to struggle through Beam’s immense facial hair to reach your ears. He gives Wayne Coyne a run for his money.
Everyone and anyone whose been awake since 2004 will instantly recognize his cover of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights”. Some fans still walk around convinced he wrote it — and with good reason. Beam’s bleeding heart sincerity is so convincing, it’s hard to believe Ben Gibbard ever penned the song. Considering this cover catapulted the songwriter to “greater heights” (pun intended), it’s no surprise it closes the first disc and introduces what some consider the second generation of Iron & Wine. What changes? Beam’s voice is clearer and the songs emphasize more instrumentation than that of a simple acoustic guitar.
Breaking the cycle is “Love Vigilantes”, one of the stronger covers on the release, and originally intended to be a b-side to Our Endless Numbered Days. Though much clearer, the New Order cover is still very similar to earlier music by Beam, due to its simplistic acoustic structure. However, it’s powerful for a different reason: the politically natured lyrics. Understand that it’s not based on political anger, but instead the immeasurable emotional fight inside a soldiers’ head regarding his desire to serve his country, and the conflicting emotions of being without your family overseas. Then again, they aren’t his lyrics, but he makes them so.
Without skipping a beat, the band’s more current style of music kicks in with unused Shepherds Dog material, including b-side “Serpent Charmer”. The slicker, more complex songwriting strays from anything the group’s previously been attributed to, and if you didn’t know any better, you probably wouldn’t connect this to Iron & Wine. Beam has come a long way from his early work, and if you’ve seen the band live, you have a taste of how many artists and musicians it takes to reproduce the newer songs. The rare, dark toned “Arms of a Thief” begins to wrap up the album with its many electronic scratches, multiple guitars, and acoustic/electric layering. The band’s evolution is only too obvious at this point.
Capping the Well is the incredibly long and arduous, “The Trapeze Swinger”. Let’s set some guidelines here, shall we? If you only have five minutes, don’t bother with the song. Seven? Keep walking. As it stands, you will need a full nine minutes and 31 seconds to listen in. But when you can sit back for ten, please do, as this one’s worth the epoch. After the incredibly dense Shepherds songs, it’s nice to hear Beam return to a simpler time when he could just let his voice shine.
Ambitious or not, this release will hardly “jack up” the hardcore fan base to retailers worldwide. Instead, for the mediocre, or those who pay for music, this is a chance to collect a great group of songs that don’t lend itself to a one time listen, but an “evolving,” long standing one.
“Belated Promise Ring”
Around the Well