Iron & Wine

The wind of change rarely blows through the lonely, mid-west town of Iron & Wine and when it does it's a soft, gentle breeze that leaves as quickly and as quietly as it approached. This has never been a bad thing as there has always been more than enough warmth to feed off in this barren land. But with The Shepherd's Dog the wind is picking up, ever so slightly, and as it passes through it leaves behind a renewed freshness. Following on from 2004's Our Endless Numbered Days and the fantastic Woman King EP in 2005, The Shepherd's Dog is the third full length and it's their best yet.

Sam Beams first two albums have been musically pretty stark often featuring his whispered vocals over delicate finger picking resulting in miles upon miles of intriguing yet desolate land, but after the hugely successful collaborative mini album with Calexico, In The Reins, and the subsequent tour, Beam's sound has progressed into Technicolor with a full band arrangement providing welcome sustenance to his flawless songwriting.

The sparse landscape from which this band has coaxed some of the most heart-aching sounds of recent times is looking more lush than ever here and is certainly starting to bear fruit. Beams vocals are as breathy and soft as ever but the instrumentation that accompanies his tales is dripping with texture and the sheer variety of tools, from lap steel to washes of strings, provides a richness not seen before. Beams vocals maintain their fragile characteristics but seem to contract to intimate closeness then expand to great washes of tone allowing the progressive musical arrangements to take the foreground.

The album is meticulously structured with each song flowing seamlessly into the other. Carousel is the musical equivalent of a babbling brook gently flowing through rocky land as Beams vocals, drenched in effects, trickle softly over delicately plucked guitar. Then as if a damn had broken its banks way up stream the river starts to pour forth with growing pace as we move into one of the albums many highlights House By The Sea. Deep bass and intricate guitar provide the complex backdrop for Beam and sister to harmonize. Innocent Blues shuffles along at a blissfully lazy pace with some unexpected banjo brilliance looming to the forefront which bleeds in to the reggae infused Wolves (Song Of The Shepherd's Dog). This acts as the centre piece to the album. At nearly 5 minutes in length it too shuffles into view with effortless simplicity and mid way through takes a short breather before launching into a glorious instrumental home straight. It's richness in sound is almost too much to fathom and marks a definite turning point for this band.

And the same can be said for the record as a whole. It maintains a firm link to the albums of the past with their soft and often bleak outlook but punctuates this with innovative musical arrangements that have their view firmly set on the road ahead. Resurrection Fern has Beams voice sounding so smoother than ever and the fragile steel guitar that soars behind it is simply glorious. The albums structure delivers its final genius blow on the closing track. Flightless Bird, American Mouth has a devastating air of conclusion and is a perfect way to end this record. It begins as fragile as a newly hatched bird then slowly takes flight and off it soars on a soft breeze of sadness and finality. It takes a few plays for this album to seep in but when it does you wont want to stray too far from its warmth.