By Reed Fischer
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By Jeff Gage
By Stacy Schwartz
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By Loren Green
Sam Beam sounds like something you'd swig from a paper bag when you're too poor to sip his big brother Jim. The Sub Pop artist's whiskey-soaked folk does justice to his surname on his debut album, The Creek Drank the Cradle, which conjures a Faulknerian South that's as cruel as it is unsettlingly familiar. In Beam's cosmology, Jesus lets bibles burn. Puppies are born in a dirty pantry and left to die. Rosaries are found broken into pieces. A man in a prison cell tells his mother about the outside world he remembers. "Only the sun might bring hope where it once was forgotten," he sings, slowly approaching some distant epiphany. And the way Beam portrays the man's voice, stringing the words together so quietly that he's almost singing to himself, you'll never know if the prisoner is simply thankful for the light that comes in through barred windows, or if he's contemplating the responsibilities that a Son has to the woman who raised him.
If it sounds like a lonely album, that's because it is: Beam, an acoustic guitar, and a tape deck are the sole members of Iron and Wine, together producing the type of eerie, lo-fi pathos that could lull a troubled Sunshine State into fitful sleep. If the album sounds like a John Sayles movie, even better: Beam teaches cinematography at a local college in Miami Beach, and his lyrics are a highly picturesque evocation of the family tragedies and working-class burdens that lead to so much Southern discomfort. Steeped as it is in the narrators' personal histories, The Creek Drank the Cradle is like a lost diary suddenly found. Which should come as no surprise: A song of Beam's once appeared on a compilation CD included within copies of the Seattle arts journal Yeti. The track--a nearly whispered folk song laced with layered vocal harmonies--haunted Yeti readers for two long years before Iron and Wine's debut was finally released.
The Creek Drank the Cradle is one of the most affecting albums of the year--and one of the least affected. Beam sings with a country twang that's never laced with indie condescension, a feat that reflects the tentative optimism that seeps through these sad songs. Listening to Beam's prisoner sing from his cell, you're tempted to tell him that his hope is vested in the wrong place. Forget the Son. It's the song that gets you through.
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