The Morning Report
Get the news and information you need to take on the day.
Saturday, October 15, 2005 | What refreshes the all-satisfied? When reality is akin to fantasy, when easy plastic boxes grant magical powers and ever-newness taunts us daily with plasma eyes and a price tag, how can we cover our ears? Where can we go for escape?
The only antidote for the modern: the past.
So like a time machine, that’s where Sam Beam’s songs go. Back to before informational omnipotence. To humid innocence and hazy guilt. To the South.
A twinkle of Carolina still lingers in the voice of the man who cast a slow-moving spell over the ears of hyperactive America. But when he plays the House of Blues in San Diego on Monday night, you probably won’t be able to hear it in his songs, where Beam’s voice glimmers like Grandmother’s silver over his slow, grainy country-folk.
Iron & Wine has released four recordings of his signature swampy ballads, which recall a time and a way of life that would seem borrowed from a museum were they not so personal. Begun on a four-track in his Florida basement, Beam’s shy, breathy vocals have matured into the gorgeous tone he bears confidently now after being introduced to the larger world on such common documents as the “Garden State” soundtrack. Though many of his songs sound quite similar, Beam’s production and songwriting improvements paint his own distinct portraits a little more vividly with each new release.
For his newest, “In the Reigns,” Beam collaborated with Arizona dreamers Calexico, whose southwestern country-rock landscapes provide the kind of full-band depth Beam’s songs have never really had. They’re taking that collaboration on the road: Calexico will open Monday’s performance at downtown’s House of Blues, then support Iron & Wine as his backing band.
The seven older, unreleased numbers Beam chose for the new record aren’t quite up to his most recent in their moodiness, but the experiment still hints that Iron & Wine’s brightest musical days may be ahead. As usual, Beam’s lyrics explore the intimacies of human relationships in ways earnest if anachronistic, imagining the America of old with a now-rare vulnerability:
There’s a prison on route 41
I’ve a reason for my absentee
“I don’t think I’ve ever done a purely-autobiographical song. I’m … not that interesting,” laughs Beam, who worked as a film professor while writing and recording his first Iron & Wine songs. “But you have to be dealing with something you can relate to.”
He says he’s still into the idea of making a film someday. So it’s fitting that many of his songs, with their developed characters and penetrating imagery, seem to rely on suspension of disbelief the way historical fiction does.
“I try to fuse some kind of story elements into every song,” explains Beam. “To do that, you have to use some sense of conflict. That usually goes into the minor-key direction.”
The songs he recorded with Calexico push the Whitman-bearded Beam even farther out of his musical shell. He has been both dark and maudlin, but until now, never whimsical.
“It was the first time I’d ever been in a situation where we were listening and someone would throw out an idea like, ‘let’s put a marimba part on,’ and five minutes later they were doing it. [Calexico] can do anything.”
And they do. Beam and his collected companions stretch their rural legs far out on “In the Reigns,” and use new ones we never expected: “He Lays in the Reigns,” the opening track, climaxes with a head-turning, operatic guest vocal solo; “A History of Lovers” bursts into a full-brass boil with a horn section that eats only beignets for breakfast.
“If I like how it sounds, I’m going to use it,” says a reticent Beam. “But I don’t say ‘how can we make this more country bumpkin-esque.”
Whether he tries for it or not, Beam’s songs still exude a flavor that is at once familiar, exotic and eminently Southern. Matching up with the dusty, atmospheric Calexico only makes the time- and place-warp more complete.
Iron and Wine will perform with Calexico at 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 17 at House of Blues, 1055 Fifth Ave. in downtown San Diego. $20-22. (619) 299-BLUE.
Please contact Ian Port directly at