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Album review: ‘Archive Series Volume No. 1’

(Courtesy of Black Cricket Recording Co.)

By Rebecca Sarvady

Feb. 25, 2015 1:37 a.m.

“Archive Series Volume No. 1”

Iron & Wine

Black Cricket Recording Co.

4 paws

Sam Beam, also known as Iron & Wine, is an enigma.

The South Carolinian singer was once a cinematography professor at the University of Miami who decided not to pursue a career in music. A man with a beard so large he is compared to Jesus, Beam rose to fame not by beat-heavy pop anthems but through hushed, lo-fi acoustic lullabies. But rather than relying on his success as a mellow musician, Beam refuses to confine himself to a specific sound. Since adding a full band to his albums in 2007, Beam has slowly transitioned from low-key melodies to a louder, jazz-influenced tone. The clear-voiced, horn-infused tracks of his 2013 album “Ghost on Ghost” are an entirely different style from Iron & Wine’s first acoustic and stripped recordings.

But now Iron & Wine is returning to its roots, or at least is remembering them in “Archive Series Volume No. 1,” a collection of previously unreleased recordings from the earliest moments of its career. Iron & Wine’s change in band size and sound received some flack from its older fans, but “Archive Series Volume No. 1 acts as a perfect flashback to the quiet brilliance that was young Iron & Wine.

The album is presented as the companion piece to Iron & Wine’s 2002 debut album, “The Creek Drank the Cradle.” It is also being released with the Picture Show short film entitled “Iron & Wine: Dreamers and Makers are My Favorite People,” which follows Beam’s performance at a small, remote theater in Cleveland, W. Va.

Themes of religion, the South and nature run rampant in this compilation, typical of any Iron & Wine recording. Beam, an agnostic, undoubtedly pulls from his Christian, Southern upbringing to paint imagery that is attached to the idea of a Bible Belt small town.

“When Jesus spoke, though I was drunk/ He tied my shoe and told me what to do,” Beam casually sings in “Sing Song Bird.”

Despite the blatant religious imagery in each song, it is easy to fail to notice their spiritual implications without intense lyrical analysis; Beam’s voice is captivating in and of itself.

The power in Iron & Wine’s “Archive Series Volume No.1” lies in its simplicity. Beam’s lyrics, which contain vivid imagery and similes such as “‘Cause time spent with you/ Feels like charcoal sketches for a painting/ That you won’t let me see” in “Quarters in a Pocket,” could be published in a book of poetry. In “Judgement,” Beam thoughtfully sings, “Nighttime brings me a place I fear/ Where I hear your words and feel you near/ Fingers only to find a frozen memory.”

When accompanied by an either twangy or soothing guitar, the lyrics convey an additional layer of intimacy between the listener and Beam. With a muffled voice and a clear guitar, it sounds as if Beam is performing from a living room, which fits with the fact that several songs from “Archive Series Volume No.1” were home recordings.

The album is more soft-spoken and subtle than Iron & Wine’s latest sound. But most listeners are likely to appreciate the humble craftsmanship of “Archive Series Volume No. 1.”

The title “Archive Series Volume No.1” suggests that the album will be one of multiple releases of archived works. As Beam strides forward with a new sound in his current music, it is gratifying to see him acknowledge and preserve his widely admired sound of the past.

– Rebecca Sarvady

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