Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Review: Iron & Wine - Around the Well (* * * 1/2)

Rarities and b-side collections are tricky beasts. On the one hand, fans should be thrilled about new material from one of their favorite artists. On the other, nothing says 'avoid me' like a selection of tunes that didn't make the cut on previous records. The age-old conundrum is presented once again with Iron & Wine's latest release, a two-disc album spanning 23 songs and 90 minutes comprised of unreleased material, covers, and non-album singles from one of indie's most adored folksters. While the record may be a mixed bag by definition, Sam Beam presents a hefty amount of solid material on Around the Well, which should be of interest to even moderate Iron & Wine fans.

The project gets off to a shaky start as the first disc of Around the Well is the decidedly less impressive of the two, with the majority of the tunes coming across as blander versions of Beam's earliest work. There are certainly a few highlights, like the opening pair of "Dearest Forsaken" and "Morning" or the gentle, down-tempo covers of Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" (which we've all heard before) and Flaming Lips' "Waitin' for a Superman" (which you probably haven't), but the disc makes too little impact to be truly compelling when digested all at one time. Recommended for diehards (Iron & Winers?) or for picking and choosing your favorite moments.

The second half of Around the Well is MUCH more interesting and consistent, featuring a varied selection of Bean's different musical styles. On the simpler folk side is the spectacular New Order cover "Love Vigilantes" and the gripping "God Made the Automobile," both stronger than anything found on the previous disc. Even on these lighter numbers, Bean asserts himself more powerfully, giving his voice a bit more muscle and keeping the melodies sharper. Later on, we're treated to Iron & Wine's more experimental tendencies for several great tunes, especially the slinky, Arabian-esque "Serpent Charmer," and the darkly emotional "Arms of a Thief," which feels most at home with Beam's music on Shepherd's Dog.

The whole project is brought to a close with the nearly ten minute epic, "Trapeze Swinger," a familiar tune to many fans, but a welcome addition just the same and another good reason to consider Around the Well as a worthwhile release despite its inconsistency. Plus, for a reasonable nine or ten dollars, you're getting plenty of bang for your buck.

Download "Belated Promise Ring" from the record's second disc for a preview.