Release Date: May 19, 2009
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
Sam Beam draws deep from the well of rarities As Iron & Wine, Sam Beam has made a career of smuggling dark thoughts of mortality and self-reckoning in music that sounds as comforting as a warm Snuggie™. Collecting nearly two-dozen assorted rarities, Around the Well serves as a secret career retrospective that highlights that defining contrast. On the first disc, Beam draws heavily from folk and country to give songs like “Dearest Forsaken” their devastating intimacy, but as the album proceeds, he gradually expands his increasingly ambitious and idiosyncratic view of Americana on “Carried Home” and “The Trapeze Swinger,” which burble with clattering percussion, countermelodic keyboards, and unexpected flourishes.
Since the internet makes it easy to track down pretty much any song you’re looking for these days—no matter how obscure—the rarities compilation has lost some of its appeal. To cull all the unreleased and out-of-print tracks into one release is convenient for the listener, and gives them the chance to support the artist instead of just downloading the tracks off a litany of blogs, but there’s little in the way of surprises. In that way, they almost feel like obligations for dedicated fans and completists instead of exciting releases.
To this point in his career, Sam Beam has made progressively fuller, more musically complex, and, in this writer's opinion, better albums each time out. 2007's The Shepherd's Dog was a complete realization of the full-band sound he'd been building up to in his live shows, his collaboration with Calexico, and to a lesser degree on his recordings; as such, it felt like a milestone. So it seems like a good time to pause and look back at the old county road that runs parallel to the highway of Beam's albums and compile some rarities for the fans.
Named after a lyric from "The Trapeze Swinger," Around the Well collects two discs' worth of B-sides, rarities, and discarded tracks from the Iron & Wine catalog. These kinds of compilations can be tricky to assemble, but Around the Well is both comprehensive and conveniently presented, with each disc representing the two amorphous halves of Iron & Wine's career. Disc one is limited to the group's early days, meaning it's filled with soft bedroom whispers, homespun acoustics, and the lo-fi production that fueled Sam Beam's home recording sessions.
The thing about Samuel Beam’s Iron and Wine outfit is how emotionally touching and gripping his music is. Lovingly enveloped within his quivering voice, finger-picking acoustic guitar playing and a few friends that lend helping hands here and there, the name Iron and Wine has come to signify one thing: gorgeous music. And although his band’s sound has significantly changed over the past two years, this collection of rarities showcases Beam relishing in the sounds he has mastered since his band’s inception.
Imagine an Iron & Wine covers album. That’s not what Around the Well is, but it’s the first interesting thought it inspires: Sam Beam doesn’t interpret songs so much as haunt them. He turns Stereolab’s excitable “Peng!” into a lullaby, sets the phantom context of New Order’s “Love Vigilantes” back about a century, and makes the Flaming Lips’ “Waitin’ for a Superman” into a spiritual so simple and credulous it’s a little spooky.