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Iron & Wine - Archive Series No. 5: Tallahassee Recordings Music Album Reviews

Sam Beam’s earliest recordings reveal a songwriter and singer already secure in his eccentricities. Far from sounding tentative, these songs are more like a lost Iron & Wine album.

Sam Beam just sorta stumbled into Iron & Wine. When he moved to Tallahassee to attend graduate school at Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts in the late 1990s, writing songs was merely a hobby. It was more like an extension of his filmmaking, and he didn’t think much of the music he did make, at least not until a friend lent him a four-track recorder. Setting his songs to tape and playing them back, Beam could actually hear them for the first time. He started making decisions about structure, lyrics, melodies, arrangements, and vocals. Through another friend, he landed a song on a compilation by the Portland-based Yeti magazine, then signed a record deal with Sub Pop and an immediate tour opening for Isaac Brock’s side project Ugly Casanova.

In 2015, the first volume in Iron & Wine’s Archive Series collected songs from early in his career, most dating just before the release of his 2002 debut The Creek Drank the Cradle, but the fifth volume goes even deeper into his vault, unearthing some of his very first recordings. (Volumes 2, 3, and 4 were tour-only releases.) Often an archival compilation like this one reveals a steep learning curve, using those first tentative recordings as a point against which to measure an artist’s progress toward more familiar material. It is gently disappointing that Tallahassee reveals a songwriter and singer already secure in his mannerisms and eccentricities, already in possession of the traits that would eventually endear him to fans. Aside from some rather abrupt fades and a lo-fi hum similar to the one that pervades his debut, the music sounds professional, accomplished, refined. You miss the creative epiphanies, those moments when a young musician realizes what he can do within a song. You miss the idea that an artist started off like any of us.

That’s only the mildest of complaints, especially since Tallahassee plays less like a compilation and more like a lost Iron & Wine album. As produced by E.J. Holowicki, the friend who lent Beam that four-track and plays bass, these songs cohere into something like a story or a statement, with opener “Why Hate Winter” immediately establishing all the traits that would soon define Iron & Wine: the easy intimacy, the patient melody, the arrangement that’s both austere and generous, the hints of something darker behind a romantic idyll. Similarly, he’s already developed a vocal tic, a way of hitting a note slightly flat. Rather than conveying powerful emotion, it reinforces a compelling stoicism, a form of understatement that serves Beam well especially on “This Solemn Day” and “Calm on the Valley.”

To a certain degree, much of Tallahassee sounds like it could be an extension of Beam’s filmmaking, which he’s described as “pretentious” and others have likened to Andrei Tarkovsky. Some of these songs are like short movies in themselves, or at least modest soundtracks to short scenes. The windswept melody of “Ex-Lover Lucy Jones” follows a lovelorn man building shrines to a woman, before revealing that the romance is one-sided and the man an unreliable narrator. Beam punctuates the tale with the most basic harmonica solo you could imagine—a series of long inhalations and exhalations marking the passage of time that might separate lovers from each other or from the people they once were. On this song and throughout Tallahassee, Beam demonstrates a knack for devastating succinctness, giving only enough details to insinuate a pain that never becomes overwhelming—the kind you just live with from one day to the next. Nothing about these songs sounds tentative or grasping. Already he understands how to settle into a song and simply let it breathe on its own.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Iron & Wine - Archive Series No. 5: Tallahassee Recordings Music Album Reviews Iron & Wine - Archive Series No. 5: Tallahassee Recordings Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Wednesday, May 19, 2021 Rating: 5

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