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Iron & Wine
Kiss Each Other Clean Michael Dix , January 25th, 2011 13:49

Over the last decade Sam Beam, the man behind the Iron & Wine moniker, has been many things to many people. Teacher, poet, romantic, comic, preacher, enigma… not always willingly, Beam has worn all these masks and more, but there are some things that are undeniable. Firstly, Beam is one of only a small handful of contemporary artists that can be legitimately be described as an alternative icon: from his earliest Sub Pop solo outings, to the inclusion of his delicate cover of the Postal Service's 'Such Great Heights' on the Garden State soundtrack, through his collaborations with Calexico to his most recent full-band recordings, the Iron & Wine catalogue is one of the most consistently rewarding there is. With his college professor fashion sense and impenetrable beard, Beam may not be the most obvious poster-boy, but there's a pretty obvious reason why his music has become the standard against which the army of quiet young men who have chosen to follow him are measured.

The other inarguable thing about Sam Beam is that he has become one of modern music's greatest storytellers. Kiss Each Other Clean, his fourth full-length studio album (and first since leaving Sub Pop, for Warners in the US and 4AD in the UK), opens with 'Walking Far From Home', a vivid tale of the beauty and horror coexisting on Beam's own doorstep; "I saw a car crash in the country… strangers stealing kisses… a millionaire pissing on the lawn… I saw sinners making music, and I dreamt of that sound." It's as if Beam, outside of the comfort of his home and family, is seeing everyday America for the first time and doesn't know whether it's a vision of heaven or of hell. It's also proof, if needed that the former English teacher's appreciation for the beauty of language remains unspoilt after all these years.

Musically, Kiss Each Other Clean continues down the same path as 2007's The Shepherd's Dog, with the "traditional" Iron & Wine sound again expanded to include a full band and a much wider stylistic view. But whilst that album sometimes seemed like the first tentative steps of someone who had finally been given the tools to realize their bigger ambitions but didn't quite know how to use them, Kiss is impressively assured.

With producer Brian Deck on board once more, and a massive group of musicians including Chicago Underground Duo drummer Chad Taylor and members of Califone and Brooklyn Afrobeat orchestra Antibalas, Beam here moves even further away from the "folk-singer" tag with which he has always been saddled; straddling mellow 60s pop and 70s AOR, with subtle nods towards Jamaican and African influences, Kiss feels like some kind of musical travelogue, as adventurous and accessible as the classic globe-trotting albums released in the mid-80s by Paul Simon and David Byrne.

Whether it's the bright horns on slack funk workouts 'Me And Lazarus' and 'Big Burned Hand', or the exotic percussion that drives 'Rabbit Will Run', almost every track here features something that will surprise anyone to whom the name Iron & Wine still means one man and his acoustic guitar. In fact, the album's best moments are the ones that sound least like the old Beam.

'Monkeys Uptown' sounds like a collaboration between Tortoise and Tinariwen, combining propulsive mechanical rhythms and desert blues guitars, whilst closer 'Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me' starts life as a swinging sax-driven cousin to Pink Floyd's 'Money' before morphing into a meltdown of psychedelic stoner riffage. Although different in many ways to The Creek Drank The Cradle or Our Endless Numbered Days, Kiss is unmistakably a product of the same conflicts that have always characterised Beam's work: darkness and light, sadness and joy, good and evil. It's a heart-breaking, wonderful journey, and like the best storytellers, Beam leaves us - as always - wanting more.