Our Endless Numbered Days
For as long as there have been 4-track recorders, there have been sad, shy boys who have used them to record their every wounded thought. Deemed lo-fi or, more recently, sadcore (by those who like to label things), it typically revolves around a singer-songwriter who digs overdubs and whispering his most personal feelings. Think Smog, Sentridoh, or Papa M: now add Iron & Wine to that list.
Miami's Sam Beam is the shy boy behind Iron & Wine, and that's probably all you're likely to learn about him as he chooses to keep the focus squarely on his music. His 2002 debut, the murky, solitary The Creek Drank the Cradle, was one of the best releases that year. His new one, Our Endless Numbered Days, relies on more than Beam and his 4-track. The sound is fleshed out, but just barely, by additions from his touring band that include sister Sara on fragile harmony vocals. It also benefits from the light touch of co-producer Brian Deck (Red Red Meat, Modest Mouse, Califone, etc.). But none of the simple, agonizing beauty of the songs is lost.
This is music that makes you feel good about being able to feel so sad. "Passing Afternoon" is a love-and-loss tour de force executed, like most of the record, through sparse instrumentation and haunting harmonies: "There are things that drift away like our endless numbered days.../But my hands remember hers/Rolling round the shady firs/Naked arms are still like secrets of songs I never learned." "Sodom, South Georgia" is a delicate gem about the hypocrisy of devoutly religious racists: "Papa died Sunday and I understood/All dead white boys say God is good/White tongues hang down/God is good."
Really, there's not a weak song among the dozen. And in the end these melancholy melodies are so pretty that when the last song ends, you'll find yourself happily going back for more, proving yet again that there's nothing necessarily depressing about sad, shy music.
Track to burn: "Sodom, South Georgia"
Grade: A--Tara Flanagan
They Were Wrong, So We Drowned
When you've captured the NYC zeitgeist with a dance-punk masterpiece, do you follow it up by ditching your rhythm section, moving to Jersey and recording an album about witches? Damn right you do. The Liars claim Sonic Youth's inscrutable Bad Moon Rising as inspiration, but They Were Wrong... most resembles Public Image's Flowers of Romance by reducing the band to a ranting singer, a looped drummer and a mixing board.
Rhythm is still King -- "We Fenced Other Gardens..." is nothing but drum noise -- but you won't be shaking your ass to this creepy shit. "Read the Book that Wrote Itself" sounds like a scribbling pencil powered by waves of thundering energy over some tribal drums, just like the song's title suggests.
"Brocken Witch," "There's Always Room on the Broom," "They Don't Want Your Corn, They Want Your...," and, especially "Hold Hands and It Will Happen Anyway," combine this sonic experimentation with some hell-sanctioned beats.
But, it's "Flow My Tears the Spider Said" that holds the bleeding heart of this record. A beautiful organ melody dominates, then quickly fades into a found-sound collage of eerie bells and woodland birds. It's a walk through dark woods, where you don't know if the life there is celebrating the rising sun or the impending flesh-feast of your own death.
Track to burn: "Hold Hands and It Will Happen Anyway"
Grade: A--Jesse Steichen
Steel Guitar Rodeo
How hard is it these days to swing a cat without hitting a talented pedal steel player? Pretty damn difficult.
At or near the top of this list (of steel players, not cats) is Bloodshot's hired gun, Jon Rauhouse. Eschewing the dark soundscapes of a Bill Elm (Friends of Dean Martinez) or the rich rock swells of an Eric Heywood (Son Volt, Alejandro Escovedo), Rauhouse aims instead for the jaunty martini accompaniment of his Western Swing/Hawaiian steel forefathers, primarily the legendary Speedy West.
His aim is true on Rodeo. Rauhouse and guest guitarist Tommy Connell have written and arranged strong originals, then stirred the shaker with choice oldies -- particularly "River of No Return," "Smoke Rings," and the Warner Brothers cartoon staple, Powerhouse, a speed-of-light obstacle course for any steel player. It reminds us that pedal steel need not register despair, but might instead encourage carnal relations between consenting adults -- a worthwhile cause, I'm led to believe.
The Rodeo is mostly instrumental, but Neko Case, Kelly Hogan and Sally Timms contribute their considerable skills, as does Howe Gelb on the campy "Indian Love Call." The Rodeo won't change your life, but it might result in a hell of a ride.
Track to burn: "Powerhouse"
Grade: B--John Schacht