So many American singer-songwriters – particularly those of an alt or alt-country nature – have an essentially unappealing sound. It’s as if the geographic gigantism of the United States has enforced a sonic monochromatism on their musical psyches, giving them a wide canvas to paint their bold pictures, but at the sacrifice of subtle colours and textures.
In the past decade, however, there has been a renaissance of sorts amongst American singer-songwriters; one typified by the late, lamented Mark Linkous (who traded under the name Sparklehorse until his suicide last year) and Sam Beam (whose project is known as Iron & Wine).
For far too long, to qualify as ‘roots music’, the all-important authenticity rating swung on bogus values like: music played in real time, on “real” instruments. The reality of so-called roots music is that, for the most part, it’s stuck in a quagmire of pointless tradition and dowdy tropes, and that’s why it’s a joyful experience to discover singer-songwriters like Beam, who so assiduously avoids the clichés of tradition while effortlessly staying true to his roots.
Iron & Wine’s 2007 album, The Shepherd’s Dog, was a knockout. While conforming to certain conventions of song construction, Beam threw a kaleidoscope of colours and textures onto magnetic tape, using his studio skills and inventiveness to construct a work that transcends and enhances its original framework. Kiss Each Other Clean benefits from many of that album’s explorations, and yet it’s not a sequel or an attempt to repeat the formula.
Its 10 songs show that Beam’s songwriting skills continue to grow, and the first thing that hits you about Kiss Each Other Clean is that its songs sound like they have always existed, without resembling anything from popular music’s increasingly long compositional highway. This is assured and often inspired songwriting, but it’s the threads he hangs on the bones that make for repeated listening pleasure. On the opening track, ‘Walking Far From Home’, that means falsetto harmonies redolent of the Beach Boys, grunty bass-synth and spooky, rattling drums; on ‘Monkeys Uptown’, that means a playful bass figure, an oddball hint of South Africa, and dual guitar; and in the finale, ‘Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me’, African jazz influences abound, but it also gets some vivid minor-chord guitar riffing. Even simple, two-chord songs like ‘Tree By The River’ are adorned in a flavourful fashion, but never sound unnecessarily elaborate. They’re clever, but not clever-clever.
The God stuff bothers me a bit: Beam is obviously inspired by religious imagery, and it feels like a running theme through the album. Still, better that a songwriter finds inspiration, passion and motivation in religion than sickly “love” lyrics, and he’s intelligent enough to know that his audience would run for the hills if he chose preacher over confessor.
Kiss Each Other Clean may lack the overall cohesion of its predecessor, but it’s a step forward in other ways, and it’s proof (as if we needed it) that there are still songwriters out there who respect tradition enough to provide their very own take on it. GARY STEEL
Music = 4
Sound = 4