Iron & Wine get called up to the majors

Though it’s slowed over the past couple years, Sam Beam’s output over the last decade under the  moniker Iron & Wine has had one of the more rewarding stylistic progressions in all of indiedom.

It all started when a friend in Florida caught of whiff of Beam’s treasure trove of whisper-quiet home recordings and sent a few to Sub Pop in Seattle. The first LP, 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, was culled (and sequenced quite brilliantly) from that collection, as was the follow-up EP, The Sea and the Rhythm. 2004 found Beam still working through a backlog of songs, though he moved the show to a proper studio, giving us the higher-fi Our Endless Numbered Days.

This is about where I came in as a fan. A senior in college, I was finally turning the corner with learning the acoustic guitar I had received as a high school graduation present. Listening to Iron & Wine gave me a completely fresh perspective on indie folk music. Where the then-recently departed  Elliott Smith was rough and breathy, Beam’s songs were unabashedly pretty, impeccably constructed, layered with harmonies, paired with clean fingerpicking, and (usually) pretty thoughtful in the lyric department. I was really, really hooked.

A couple more EPs in 2005 (Woman King and In the Reins) and I had my first chance to see I & W in concert: a wonderful (if overlong) double bill with Calexico.

The third LP (and yes, with Beam you actually get a discernible difference between EP and LP), 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, came as the first batch of Iron and Wine songs not overtly reliant on the original home demos. With that change came an impressive upgrade in rhythm and instrumentation, especially on the Latin shuffle of “Lovesong of the Buzzard” and the Afrobeat-flavored “House by the Sea“. I saw Beam a second time that year, this time with a fantastic backing band and a beard and hair length Jesus himself would have totes coveted. I remember the sound at that show being so incredibly warm, I could have listened to Beam wank out “The Trapeze Swinger” for hours more than he actually did.

So now we have news that Iron & Wine have parted ways with Sup Pop and signed a major label deal Warner Bros. There’s little to worry about here, as other popular indie acts have made the move to majors during similar stages in their careers: Death Cab for Cutie, The Decemberists, and Modest Mouse come to mind. The idea is that an act like Beam is so established in the music world through years of underground work that he’s able to sign to Warner completely on his own artistic terms. I applaud Beam’s decision. Dude’s got kids and college funds to think about, and signing with Warner will allow his next album (due Jan 2011) to receive wider promotion and probably increased sales, all without any compromise to quality.

Still, I have two warnings to impart to Sam Beam:

1. Keep the venues small: As a live act, Iron & Wine are pretty much on the cusp of moving permanently from clubs to theaters. Such a move would admittedly entail an improvement in acoustics. But the increase to ticket price is sure to be disproportionate. We’re talking a $25-30 ticket jumping to $55-60. It’s an increase that’s usually rationalized by someone thinking “Iron and Wine fans are loyal, and they’re probably all in higher paying jobs now than they had five years ago, so they’ll be able to afford a more expensive ticket.” While this may be true of the increasingly middle-aged fanbase, artists in Beam’s position are advised to note that their lasting credibility will stem in part from maintaining accessibility among younger fans. Keeping shows intimate + cheap are critical to maintaing this. That said…

2. Give the soundtracks a rest: Appearances in movies like Garden State and last year’s Twilight installment certainly gave Iron and Wine increased notoriety, but only the ficklest, teeny-bopper kind. Case in point: an appearance at UC-San Diego’s Sungod Festival last year (while I was still a grad student there), the youtube videos of which reveal a horrendously under-appreciative, binge-drinking crowd only there to hear “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” (You know, the one from Twilight). Blech!

Anyway, congrats on the new deal Sam! I look forward to hearing what you do next!


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