BEST OF 2011–28. Iron & Wine–Kiss Each Other Clean

Iron & Wine’s ‘Passing Afternoon’ is quite possibly one of the most delicately constructed songs ever made, containing the lyric which brought about the name of its parent album, “there are things that drift away, like our endless numbered days.” Plaintive piano keeps time as gentle guitar lines provide subtle accompaniment to Sam Beam’s beautiful vocal. Nick Hornby once described Teenage Fanclub’s superlative record ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ as “the next best comfort food you can buy if you’ve already got ‘Rubber Soul’.” To that list you could arguably add that pristine album.

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Things took a curious turn with 2007’s ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’, which pushed and pulled in different directions as Beam attempted to simultaneously explore and wilfully muddy his signature sound. Whilst it broke fewer hearts than its predecessor, it pointed the way to an intriguing future. But things were quiet for some time thereafter, save for the excellent odds and sods collection, ‘Around The Well’, which only served to remind the listening public of the more sparse songs of old.

Some concern was expressed at early remarks from Beam suggesting that ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ could be described as a “pop record”, adding that “it sounds like the music people heard in their parents’ car growing up… that early-to-mid-’70s FM, radio-friendly music.” While the sharper edges of ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’ have been smoothed over, this was never one to have Adele and Olly Murs quaking on the shelves of your local supermarket. Yes, things sound a little different but there is no cause for alarm. Quite the opposite, in fact, for studio album number four turned out to be the second essential Iron & Wine album, and the first for new label 4AD. The musical backdrop may continue to change, but the beguiling constant – Beam’s voice – is just as alluring as ever.

These ten songs ooze warmth, littered with classic rock gear changes, acoustic thrums and shuffling bass, but the rhythmic schizophrenia from the last outing still remains intact. Although ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ is yet further down the road from ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’, it is still quite distinctively Iron & Wine. That said, if early outings left you cold and wishing that there was a little more meat on the bones, then this might be the time to commit some cash for a re-evaluation.

As has always been his way, the lyrics offer a darker undercurrent in contrast to the more saccharine surface layers. With his knack for illuminatingly detailed description, Beam once again defines the album’s landscape. Opening track ‘Walking Far From Home’ offers the unsettling imagery of “saw a car crash in the country, where the prayers run like weeds along the road,” while ‘Rabbit Will Run’, accompanied by a suitably unsettling soundtrack, declares that “judgement is just like a cup that we share, I’ll jump over the wall and I’ll wait for you there” as part of a tale of wrongdoing and recriminations.

Just as the act of dressing Brian Blessed like the Pope wouldn’t stop him having Brian Blessed’s voice (another day, another tortured example), the broader approach to musical arrangements which have graced more recent Iron & Wine outings do not in any way diminish the presence of Beam’s remarkable vocals. ‘Godless Brother In Love’ and ‘Tree By The River’ are the two shining examples of uplifting harmonies and pop classicism, delivering on the earlier claim to sound like music played by people’s parents. Provided said parents liked a bit of Beach Boys.

Having seen some of these tracks performed during Beam’s heartening headline set at this year’s Green Man Festival, their strength was reaffirmed and I found myself returning to the album again after its initial appearance. While he is prone to a little excess when onstage, this is beautifully textured and expertly produced outing. ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ is a curiously comforting record. Even though heart-warming lullabies can then be followed by squelching funk, the overarching sense of warmth in this sound makes for a deeply satisfying listen. A pair of headphones and a cuppa should seal the deal.

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20 from ‘11 so far – Part 1

I like lists. Even a brief browse of the site should make that pretty clear. As a result, read on for the first half of Just Played’s Top 20 albums from the first half of 2011. Where I’ve already reviewed the album in question, there is a link through to it, along with a listen link to Spotify and a buy link through to the marvellous Rise site, who’ll sort you out with the tunes pretty sharpish. Feel free to agree, mutter abuse or supply your own lists below. Right then…

20. Noah And The Whale – ‘Last Night On Earth’ (MERCURY)

Noah WhaleI didn’t see this coming. The debut annoyed the hell out of me and, as a result, I came late to their rather lovely, if raw, second outing, ‘The First Days Of Spring’. This is a long way from either and is a record which took some time to learn to love. However, it’s one of the feel-good indie pop records of the year to date and will sound amazing should we get much more sun. Lovely vinyl pressing comes with bonus 7” too.

“‘Last Night On Earth’, however, is the one I’ll be merrily recommending to all who’ll listen and cherry picking for my end of year compilation. Only the ruptured heart of a self-loathing blowhard could find anything to dislike about ‘Waiting For My Chance To Come’.”

Read the full review

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19. Wild Beasts – Smother’ (DOMINO)

Wild-Beasts-SmotherThe bold and sizeable leap from ‘Limbo, Panto’ to ‘Two Dancers’ was an impressive enough feat, but with ‘Smother’ Wild Beasts have honed their craft and perfected their sound. There’s been much talk of Talk Talk in recent pieces about the band and there’s certainly something of the Hollis sound to parts of this album but it’s far from being derivative. Slightly less wilfully and protrudingly pervy than its predecessor, ‘Smother’ possesses a layered and fluid sound and has been produced superbly. Guitar lines are contorted and extended, serving to underline emotions conveyed by the typically forthright lyrics. A gloriously musical album, if that doesn’t sound too stupid, Wild Beasts’ third outing is one which I still think has plenty to reveal, even at this stage.

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18. The Leisure Society – ‘Into The Murky Water’ (FULL TIME HOBBY)

the-leisure-society-into-murky-waterThe first album resulted in Ivor Novello triumphs and bemused Five Live presenters having to interview frontman Nick Hemming, despite seeming to know nothing about him or his music. While ‘The Sleeper’ featured a number of beautifully constructed songs, it’s on ‘Into The Murky Water’ that they’ve truly blossomed. Although frequently described as folky, this is orchestrated indie pop with an arch sensibility and a raised eyebrow. I’m reminded, and I mean this as a compliment, of some of Mull Historical Society’s finer moments at times and ‘You Could Keep Me Talking’, a ludicrously catchy little tune, is a good snapshot of the album’s joyous sound.

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17. Radiohead – The King Of Limbs’ (XL RECORDINGS)

KoLIt’s not perfect and it’s not their best. But, that doesn’t make it bad or, to these ears at least, a disappointment. There’s much to love here and the more I’ve played it, the more I’ve warmed to its eight tracks. Wonderful moments like ‘Little By Little’, ‘Codex’ and ‘Giving Up The Ghost’ are enduring delights which all have aspects of the familiar Radiohead approach People seem to be complaining that the band haven’t taken a massive leap forward with their sound and yet eleven years ago there were cries about them failing to do another ‘OK Computer’ and fourteen years ago there were some complaints when ‘OK Computer’ wasn’t another ‘The Bends’. Yep, the band have got familiar with a certain sound but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some wonderful songs here. Forgive the defensive tone of this comment, but I do really think there are some great songs here, some months after all the hype, and, as I said in the original review, people would benefit from switching all desire to judge and simply listening…a lot.

“Once it clicks, you’ll likely find yourself sitting there wondering what exactly it was about it that confused you in the first place. Just like walking down dark streets to find somewhere you’ve never previously been to before only to find the return journey seems much quicker and considerably less threatening, the more full plays you give ‘The King Of Limbs’, the less any of it jars or seems wilfully perverse.”

Read the full review

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16. Sarabeth Tucek – ‘Get Well Soon’ (SONIC CATHEDRAL)

Sarabeth Tucek Get Well SoonFollowing up a debut which was already no slouch, Sarabeth Tucek’s next step was this utterly beautiful record; a soundtrack to a number of difficult and distressing events, packaged like a late Sixties, cult singer/songwriter album of note. And that’s sort of how it sounds too. Cat Power, Callahan and Karen Dalton fans should all check in here for some wonderfully understated and finely crafted music for the soul.

“It’s the sort of album you’ll tell people about excitedly and buy for the sensitive types in your life. The album’s final lines offer a measured sense of optimism and triumph: “It just takes time, get well soon. I was once just like you, get well soon.” Many great records have been birthed out of traumatic or intense periods of an artist’s life, and to that list of fine albums can be added ‘Get Well Soon’.”

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15. The Middle East‘I Want That You Are Always Happy’ (PIAS)

I_Want_That_You_Are_Always_Happy-ArtworkThis was a complete punt, having been drawn in by the artwork and its appearance on a couple of record shops’ recommended lists. Parts of it are hauntingly lo-fi, some bits are winningly janglesome and there are occasional moments of genuinely bleak introspection. It makes for a varied and curious early listen and my first impressions were muddled. Whilst at first the fluid approach to genre and sound can make the record seem fragmented, repeated plays give it space to breathe and time to ensnare you. For me, it was a walk in the rain, with the album seeping up from the background to suddenly coalesce into something which has held my attention ever since. I haven’t yet written in detail about ‘I Want That You Are Always Happy’ because it’s so hard to categorise but I may have to work on that, as I suspect it will be higher up the list when I come to put together the more detailed end of year overview. Hugely recommended, but make sure you give it a few plays.

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14. R.E.M. – ‘Collapse Into Now’ (WARNERS)

rem-collapse-into-nowIt’s not perfect and it’s not their best. But, as a long time fan of R.E.M., it was a joyous listen and it is their best since the turn of the millennium. Yes, ‘Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter’ does contain some pretty shit lyrics and, no, I don’t know why there’s that needless reprise at the end of ‘Blue’ either but there are some wonderful songs here and, for the first time in a while, their capacity to genuinely move me is back. The chorus of ‘Uberlin’ is vintage mid-paced R.E.M. while the short, sharp adrenalin burst of ‘That Someone Is You’ is close to melodic pop perfection, departing just shy of the two minute mark. ‘Walk It Back’ is the album highlight and its shuffling, understated delivery is one of Stipe’s finest recorded moments since ‘I’ve Been High’. If you want them to sound like Eighties R.E.M. then move along now and buy the ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ reissue but if you still have time for this band then I would be very surprised to hear that you were anything other than pleased with this largely excellent record.

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13. Iron & Wine – ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ (4AD)

I&WThis album is curiously evocative of snow for me, despite sounding like it belongs in the sunshine. I was reviewing it during the ludicrously heavy snow fall of early December 2010 and, as such, I sometimes forget that this is actually a 2011 release. The cover is, clearly, ace and the music follows suit. While the gentle, lulling swoop of older material is rather less prominent now, Sam Beam’s music is never less than meticulously crafted and deeply affecting. ‘Godless Brother In Love’ and ‘Tree By The River’ are both absolute gems and just nudge several other tracks to be the highlights, but it’s a pretty close run thing. The music has smoother edges than on ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’ and the Seventies FM radio references in the early press material do make sense, but this is still clearly Iron & Wine and, by extension, tremendous.

“These ten songs ooze warmth, littered with classic rock gear changes, acoustic thrums and shuffling bass but the rhythmic schizophrenia from the last outing still remains intact. Although ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ is yet further down the road from ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’, it is still quite distinctively Iron & Wine. That said, if early outings left you cold and wishing that there was a little more meat on the bones, then this might be the time to commit some cash for a re-evaluation.”

Read the full review

Listen / Buy

12. My Morning Jacket – ‘Circuital’ (V2)

My-Morning-Jacket-CircuitalOccasionally a song is so good it can eclipse the rest of an album, somewhat. That is the case with ‘Holdin’ On To Black Metal’, a song so absolutely enormous it is impossible to hear on headphones without commencing a strutting swagger replete with the sensation that you are now eight foot tall and completely invincible. It’s a song you’ll play five times in a row, a song with a children’s choir and a song with horn stabs to which you can thrust limbs in an angular fashion. And the rest of it’s pretty special too. Opener ‘Victory Dance’ is a thundering way to begin while ‘Wonderful (The Way I Feel)’ is intimate and positive without ever bordering on being saccharine, despite its title. There’s a cracking 45rpm double vinyl pressing which is the best way to experience such a sonically pleasing record.

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11. Bon Iver‘Bon Iver’ (4AD)

bon iverIt was always going to be tough to follow up critics’ choice and all rounder indie sleeper smash, ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ but Justin Vernon doesn’t seem to have struggled too much, on this evidence. While I liked the debut, I grew a little tired of it due largely to the good lady’s borderline obsession with it which ensured it was playing somewhere in the house almost every day for a year. This is a leap on, with a different mood, subject matter and sonic palette. Oh, the saxophone. It’s still relatively early days for this one and I can envisage it getting plenty of plays during hazy summer evenings and slowly becoming as well-worn as its predecessor. It hangs together splendidly and I’m even inclined to forgive ‘Beth/Rest’ its excesses the more I play it. Be sure to check out the cover of ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ I mentioned previously, which appeared as a b-side to first single ‘Calgary’.

“It’s an album which sounds curiously out of time. Which is not to say it is timeless, far from it in fact. ‘Bon Iver’ sounds pointedly dated at certain moments, not least on album closer ‘Beth/Rest’, which has predictably provoked buckets of wrath for its Eighties soft-rock tones. While there are undeniably contemporary references here and there, it has the feeling of a moderately successful record of old, its beauty shining through despite the particular clothes of the time it has come from.”

Read the full review

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2011OTR

The Just Played Verdict: Iron & Wine ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’

Iron & Wine’s ‘Passing Afternoon’ is quite possibly one of the most delicately constructed songs ever made, containing the lyric which brought about the name of its parent album, “there are things that drift away, like our endless numbered days.” Plaintive piano keeps time as gentle guitar lines provide subtle accompaniment to Sam Beam’s beautiful vocal. Nick Hornby once described Teenage Fanclub’s superlative record ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ as “the next best comfort food you can buy if you’ve already got ‘Rubber Soul’.” To that list you could arguably add that pristine album.

I&W

Things took a curious turn with 2007’s ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’, which pushed and pulled in different directions as Beam attempted to simultaneously explore and muddy his signature sound. Whilst it broke fewer hearts than its predecessor, it pointed the way to an intriguing future. But things have been quiet since, save for the excellent odds and sods collection, ‘Around The Well’, which only served to remind the listening public of the more sparse songs of old. Continue reading “The Just Played Verdict: Iron & Wine ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’”

January Reviews–Iron & Wine, The Decemberists & Joan As Police Woman

A little late with these, but here are this month’s Clash appearances. There’s also a splendid double page piece on David Bowie’s masterwork, ‘Station To Station’, but I’ll refrain from posting it just now as you can all purchase the magazine at the moment, should you wish to read it.

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IRON & WINE – ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ (4AD)

If some voices are like Marmite – you love them or you hate them – then Sam Beam’s is like chocolate – velvety, rich and comfortingly familiar. After the broader sonic palette of ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’, this is rather more conventional fare, ‘Tree By The River’ joining the Iron & wine cannon of beautiful lullabies. Less folksy, more funky, ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ is a rather more lively, sometimes even poppy record. Even with increased early-Seventies polish, a song like ‘Godless Brother In Love’ serves to demonstrate Beam’s majestic knack for melody, his mellifluous vocal left to drift atop twinkling harp and piano. 8/10

This one has continued to delight and captivate since I wrote this back when it was all snowy at the start of December. There is a much longer, and frankly more insightful, review of this which I’ve written for the Rise website which will be going live any day now. I’ll cross post it here in due course but take my word for it, you’ll be wanting this one. It’s less jarring than aspects of the last one could be and with flashes of the laidback beauty of ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’.

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THE DECEMBERISTS‘The King Is Dead’ (ROUGH TRADE)

There are times during this record when it’s hard not to be reminded of R.E.M. in full jangle mode. Think somewhere between ‘Green’ and ‘Out Of Time’ and you’ll not be far wrong. But who’s that in the corner? Why, it’s Peter Buck, who plays on three tracks and makes the audible link a little easier to understand. Shorn of the extravagance of ‘The Hazards Of Love’ and harking back to the relative simplicity of ‘Picaresque’, this latest offering is a finessed folk-rock record to bring a little taste of long summer evening drives to the glacial January gloom. 7/10

Again, there is an extended version of this available which also graces said record shop’s website. All in good time, all in good time. However, I think this one pretty much captures the spirit of the record. There are better Decemberists albums available and there are far stranger Decemberists albums available but, is it a worthy addition to their catalogue? Absolutely. A fabulously warm sound to this one and plenty of uplifting sing-song moments.

JOAN AS POLICE WOMAN – ‘The Deep Field’ (PLAY IT AGAIN SAM)

No difficult third album syndrome for Joan Wasser, building on the sublime and slinky soulful rock which made parts of ‘To Survive’ such a delight to hear. A deceptively textured musical backdrop is, nevertheless, left to play second fiddle to consistently remarkable vocals. Album stand-out ‘Human Condition’, all hand claps and whirling bass, is destined for discerning Sunday morning soundtracks. 7/10

I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw the printed version of this one. Clearly, one of the longer reviews had fallen through at the last minute as this text (60 words – one of the small pieces down the side) has been expanded into a 100 worder by splicing new phrases in amongst mine. I think it’s fairly clear that it’s not one voice speaking! Anyway, self-promotion aside, this is a slow-burner, I suspect, and will likely sound a lot better during long summer evenings. I do wish she could keep some of the songs a little nearer three than five minutes, mind you.

2011OTR

A Week With… Number One

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When visiting family over Christmas, opportunities to listen to music are few and far between. I found myself reaching for the iPod on Christmas morning just to grab a song or two before the day got going and I found myself gravitating towards ‘Passing Afternoon’, the final track on ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’. A lovely, meandering and moving track, offering a meditation on life with the wonderfully simple lyric, “there are things that drift away like our endless, numbered days.” That its lyric should define this record seems entirely appropriate as that song has come to do exactly that for me as a listener. It was the first Iron & Wine album I bought, a few years ago when on holiday, and I thought it sounded rather nice but didn’t exactly fall head over heels.

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Weirdly, it was the 2009 rarities and b-sides record ‘Around The Well’ that reignited my interest in the band, Sam Beam’s voice perfectly suiting the mood I was in at that point in time. As a result, I ended up with another copy of this album after I spotted a vinyl copy during my time spent with ‘Around The Well’. But still I didn’t really understand how great ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ is. I do now. That Christmas morning, I was utterly floored by ‘Passing Afternoon’ and had to sneak off later that afternoon to sit quietly in a back room and listen to the rest of the album. I’ve played it numerous times since – as many as four times in one day – and I’ve been absolutely charmed. It really should have been in the list I’ve only just finished writing about and I suspect I’ve found a firm favourite in this album. Funny how these things happen. I was watching the double-parter conclusion to Season Four of House just before Christmas and ‘Passing Afternoon’ was featured during the scenes when Wilson knows that Amber is going to die and I was reminded of this beautiful but neglected track. I presume that’s why it was floating in my head when I needed to choose one song out of thousands on Christmas Day.

I’ve since realised that its parent album contains eleven additional, almost equally excellent tracks that I hadn’t really spent long enough with. There’s no ‘big number’ and it is largely an album of sweetly sung, laidback folk pieces but they are beautifully crafted songs, each and every one. ‘Naked As We Came’ and ‘Sodom, South Georgia’ are cut from similarly simple cloth as ‘Passing Afternoon’, the latter of the two considering when “Papa died smiling” and “while my girl lady Edith was born”. Beam manages to somehow deploy emotive imagery and invoke a strong sense of melancholy without losing hope. This is not a depressing record. Indeed, I find it strangely warming and comforting and I’ve almost surprised myself by the number of immediate repeat listens it’s had this week. I so rarely play the same album twice, back to back, but it’s been happening most mornings.

The winding plucked guitar sounds that open ‘On Your Wings’, and in so doing open the album proper, are deliciously sparse, much like the rest of the material here. Beam’s economy is, in fact, his great strength and so much of Iron & Wine’s music is in the quietly affecting mould. ‘Cinder And Smoke’ features a repeated vocal refrain which I can best transcribe as “Aye, yi, yi, yai, yeah” over its concluding minutes which is as nagging as any chartbusting chorus and a fine example of how much of this album works. The hooks aren’t immediately obvious, and often it’ll be little bits of harmony or a twiddly guitar part that does the trick. These are musical moments you play over in your head when the records not there, rather than vocal lines you shout along with after four pints and seven mini sausage rolls.

Having never previously spent enough time with this record, I’m starting to wonder how many records in my collection I think are ‘good’ but might actually turn out to be truly great with a bit more attention. That leads me ‘A Week With…’ whereby one of those very albums will get dug out and given repeated plays over a week in the hope of shedding a little more light on its greatness. Or, it may actually prove that some of the stuff I thought was quite good was actually a bit shit. Feel free to fling suggestions for albums for this feature via Twitter, where it’s @justplayed or you can comment or email if you’d rather.