“The Shepherd’s Dog” is Sam Beam’s third LP released under the Iron and Wine moniker, and it is his best so far. Beam has stayed true to the spirit of his earlier releases, but the new album is a more ambitious, fleshed out undertaking that reflects his changing influences. Banjo and guitar are still prominent, but “The Shepherd’s Dog” is also heavy on African rhythms, and Beam’s touring band has expanded to include one-time members of Wilco, Califone and Sea & Cake.
Iron and Wine arrived on the music scene without much fanfare in 2002 with “The Creek Drank the Cradle.” Beam wrote, performed and produced the whole album in his home studio, and the music was accordingly intimate. The first album was certainly well-received, but his sound has come a long way in the last five years. His second effort “Our Endless Numbered Days” was still acoustic folk, but Iron and Wine was sounding less like a man and more like a band. A collaborative album with the southwestern rock band Calexico further helped Beam’s sound evolve.
“The Shepherd’s Dog” is another step in that progressive direction, and it’s a bit of a departure from his earlier work. That said, many of the Iron and Wine elements remain the same, from finger-picked acoustic guitar to Beam’s lyrical wit. Calexico appears on just one track, but their influence is all over the album. An acoustic guitar opens the album on “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car,” but it is soon joined by a full band and vocal harmonies. The background vocals and steady percussion help move the track along, and it’s a good example of how far Iron and Wine has come since the first album.
Electric guitar takes a more prominent role on this album, and it’s particularly effective on “White Tooth Man.” Iron and Wine has always used slide guitar well, and it is a continued strength on this album. When the vocals drop out the electric guitar really shines; it’s a shame there isn’t an instrumental track on the album. “Boy With a Coin” transcends the typical Iron and Wine sound altogether, pairing upbeat instrumentation with a cryptic narrative.
The most powerful track on “The Shepherd’s Dog” is saved for last, and though “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” is just over four minutes long, there is an anathematic quality to it. The first section is an instrumentally sparse, poetic exposition: “And when the cops closed the fair, I cut my long baby hair / Stole me a dog-eared map and called for you everywhere.” When a full band kicks in after the first chorus, it is a genuinely moving moment. Beam drops some of his finest imagery (“Those fishing lures thrown in the cold and clean / Blood of Christ mountain stream”) before closing the song with wordless vocal harmonizing. As the album’s best song fades out, the listener is left with a new appreciation for Beam’s versatility. It will be interesting to see where he takes us next.