I have to confess I haven’t been a huge fan of the last couple of Iron & Wine albums. Despite the occasional marvellous song (‘Flightless Bird, American Mouth’) they’ve felt caught somewhere between the hushed intensity of And the Creek Drank the Cradle and Our Endless Numbered Days (apparently the distinctive whispered vocals on the former were because Sam Beam’s baby daughter was asleep in the next room) and the more expansive arrangements he seemed to be pursuing on The Shepherd’s Dog and Kiss Each Other Clean. But right from the looselimbed, sun-warmed zig-zag of its opener, ‘Caught in the Briars’, his new album, Ghost on Ghost, is a revelation: gorgeous, warm, even a little bit funky, a combination in which the more complex musical ideas Beam has been exploring in recent years finally serve to reveal his real strength as a songwriter.
For now at least you can stream the full album on NPR’s First Listen; alternatively you can check out the video for the album’s third track, ‘Joy’, below.
I mentioned the pride of place taken by Sam Beam’s ‘Flightless Bird, American Mouth’ in the movie of Twilight the other day. But after hearing it I went out and bought Around the Well, the new two disc set of Iron & Wine rarities. Besides coming complete with more old school tape hiss than any record deserves to have, Around the Well is what it says it is, a selection of bibs and bobs, but there are more than a few gems amidst its 23 tracks, not the least of which is this cover of New Order’s ‘Love Vigilantes’. Not what you’d call an obvious collision of aesthetics, but it works beautifully.
So. I’m working on a piece about vampire lit for the July issue of The Australian Literary Review (the June issue of which is in tomorrow’s Australian, just btw) and as a result I’ve spent the last few weeks reading more crappy vampire novels than any sane person should have to. But having waded my way through the books I’m now having to get to work on the movies, which is why, last night, I found myself in front of Twilight.
Now even before I saw it I knew it was meant to be at least interesting, if only because it was directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who directed Lords of Dogtown and Thirteen (and who, if memory serves, was rather unceremoniously dumped off the sequel after Twilight was deemed too “arty” by the studio) but I have to say I wasn’t expecting a lot, so the reality came as something of a pleasant surprise. In fact the film itself is a bit of a treat, at least until the grinding of the plot machinery takes over in the second half. Bella and Edward are a little dull, but everyone around them is wonderful, and Hardwicke lends the otherwise fairly routine material a slightly off-kilter sweetness that’s difficult to resist. Even small scenes, such as the one in which Bella’s father introduces her to Billy and Jacob are beautifully staged and composed. Of course it all goes wrong once the plot takes over, but until then there’s a lot to like.
Less obvious is the sheer gorgeousness of the film as a film, not just in terms of its cinematography and use of location, but in terms of editing and sound and, rather more obviously, music. Rather than the bombastic rock one might have expected, Hardwicke has assembled a soundtrack built around guitar music by Carter Burwell and a collection of tracks by Paramore and Linkin Park. But pride of place in the film goes to ‘Flightless Bird, American Mouth’, the stunning closing track from Iron & Wine’s 2007 album, The Shepherd’s Dog.
I’m not sure The Shepherd’s Dog is the place to start for anyone new to Sam Beam’s very particular genius (I’d probably send a newcomer to Our Endless Numbered Days) but anyone wanting a taste of what he’s about might want to spend a moment or two listening to the live recording of ‘Flightless Bird, American Mouth’ below.
And if you’re marvelling at the beard, apparently he doesn’t like to talk about it. (Annoyingly I read something just the other day about the cultural significance of the crazy beard thing, but I can’t remember where it was, so if anyone else saw it, and knows where it was, please let me know).