Were it not for the beard, you probably wouldn’t recognize him. From bedroom folk singer with a cassette recorder and six string, to confident and brazen musician with a full band, Sam Beam has whispered his way into the hearts and imaginations of alternative audiences for nearly a decade.
But the Beam on stage at Chicago’s Millennium Park isn’t the acoustic-strumming, rugged backwoodsman that your older sister fell in love with. For Kiss Each Other Clean, his fourth record, and first for Warner Bros., he’s cleaned up his act -– literally. With his hair combed back and a newfound taste for suits, Beam pushes the boundaries of folk music while fondly recalling your parent’s record collection.
And he does so with a full band. The Beam of years past, who often toured as a one-man show, is no more. Show opener “Rabbit Will Run” suggests Van Morrison gone prog; crawling marimbas, perky flutes, and a mad horn section bring the experimental cut from Clean to life, bursting with color and aplomb. Where the fusion jazz mood should be a guffaw-inducing cheesefest, Beam and company sell the big budget production with such sincerity and heart that you can only believe in them.
If you’re new to the Iron & Wine bandwagon, it may take a bit of suspended disbelief to trace the group’s roots. For starters, Iron & Wine began not as a group, but as a stage name for Beam, who worked alone. Back in 2002, the music was no more than a side project for the South Carolina native, who was a film professor at the time. Before his melodies had prominent sax sections, they were intimate home recordings, captured on a four-track in his bedroom.
Despite going from cooing into a tape recorder to being featured on the Twilight soundtrack, Beam remains true to his roots. He proves his chops in stripping down heavily produced numbers (“Big Burned Hand”, “Flightless Bird, American Mouth”), and adding flavorful instrumentation to previously bare tracks (“Freedom Hangs Like Heaven”, “Lovesong of the Buzzard”).
“We will become, become,” Beam declares on “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me,” the riveting closer on Kiss Each Other Clean. “I think you try to push yourself into different areas you haven’t walked around in before,” he explains in a recent interview with The A.V. Club. “It’s easy to recognize, because you play the songs for a while at shows, and you work on a record for so long, you know it backward and forward, so you try to push yourself further, to add to it.”
By “further,” Beam isn’t merely referring to technical density. The expanded soundscapes provide a vehicle for the powerful songwriting that has connected Iron & Wine with fans for years. “I want to describe a feeling, and write something that’s true…a good song should be a poem and have some kind of element that you recognize is true.”