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Iron and Wine

1/8/2018

Of the many ways to measure a year, my preference is the musical memories. 2017, for all its tumult, was a creative carnival. There were some brilliant and expertly executed highlights from old favorites this year. Japandroids, The War On Drugs, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit and The Menzingers are instant classics in my catalog. But as far as taking the time to put some words down, I wanted to take my end-of-the-year list as an opportunity to highlight artists I would’ve loved to see get MORE attention for their work in the lists that I saw critics compiling, as opposed to those artists who everyone seems to agree did the best work. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive list of what caught my ears, here’s a playlist of some of my favorite songs from the year. And for more fun, here’s what I was looking forward to hearing this time last year (a couple wishes came true).

In no particular order, my list of the underrated music of 2017 that might be worth a listen or two:

Misterwives – Connect the Dots


This was easily one of my favorite records of this year, especially because it came in the form of a brand-new band discovery. I found Misterwives the same weekend as Record Store Day, and I bopped my way through the line curving around Amobea with “Machine” blaring in my ears. There’s a buoyancy and clarity to their sound that’s so fun and yet so strong, with lyrics are joyful, insightful and woke, sometimes all at the same time. In a year that ended with the voices of women being heard and celebrated, I think Mandy Lee’s output and Misterwives’ record was incredibly overlooked in music and pop culture circles. There’s still time, though, for Connect the Dots to take hold, and I’ll be here nodding along when it does.

Iron & Wine  – Beast Epic


This is a band that many listeners might associate with being great at a different particular time,  but I very much enjoyed Beast Epic. I thought it was beautiful, and full of thoughtful goodness. “Call It Dreaming” is, in particular, uplifting and lovely, I can think of at least two times I cried on the train listening to it. It joins a canon of other Iron & Wine songs (“Upward Over The Mountain,” “Walking Far From Home”) that instantly cut out my heart and serve it up to whatever waiting angeles want to sew it back in.

The Maine – Lovely Little Lonely


Oh, The Maine. A band that I fear will never have the recognition among rock/pop music critics that they so deserve, even though they still keep getting better with time. This album pushed their boundaries from the bubble-gum of American Candy slightly darker reflections, but still no shortage of hooks and earworm turns of phrase. A surprising addition to my workout playlists, this was both one of my most-anticipated albums of 2017 and one of my most-listened to.

The Killers- Wonderful Wonderful


Wonderful Wonderful got a bad odor attached to it way too quickly, there’s good stuff, there’s band that’s developing in the way they always were supposed to. The first 45 seconds of the album are probably the coolest part of it, but there’s a lot of other layers and meaning to it. Brandon Flowers has a cheeseball quality to him, but it’s not like that wasn’t on Hot Fuss either. I really like how thoughtful some of the lyrics seem, “are your excuses any better than your senators” is up there with the more socially observant takes from Flowers. The more I listened to it, the more layers I heard here — layers of rock music history, layers of references and layers of a band who is still finding their way, as all musicians ever are.

Carly Rae Jespen – “Cut To The Feeling”


I saw a tweet from someone who said that if there was any justice in pop radio, this song would be #1 airplay. Alas! Spotify’s Wrapped told me it was my most-listened to track this year, though, so there is that. Anyway, I know this isn’t an album and this is usually an albums list, but I can’t talk about my musical diiet in 2017 without talking about this song. For workouts, for pump-me-up moments, for sidewalk strolls, “Cut to the Feeling” is as perfect a pop song as I could ever imagine in any setting. Her voice is light and infused, the synths are sparkly and the chorus is soaring. More Carly Rae in 2018 and beyond, “Cut to the Feeling” proves she knows exactly what she’s doing and isn’t afraid to put it out there in any form.

Perfume Genuis – “Slip Away”


Another choice that rests as a song instead of an album — even though No Shape is a wonderful, thought-provoking listen that received accolades all over the place, this is the song that really stole my focus. It’s also easily one of my most-listened to tracks in 2017, a song I will forever associate with the year and the challenges and lessons it provided. I would love to see this band progress and grow, and earn more acclaim for such unique and inspired work.

Ruston Kelly – “Black Magic”


One of my favorite Americana/country discoveries of the year is Kacey Musgraves very talented husband Ruston Kelly – “Black Magic” is biting and classic and heartwrenching, and a hell of a fun to sing, too. It too became one of those songs I played in all times and all places, “Love is hell and nothing more than black magic” seems to me to be one of those lyrics that fell down from the sky and into waiting hands, meanings it’s hte most perfect, authentic, realized kind from the geniuses themselves.

Oh, and I loved Reputation. I listened to it on loop traveling to San Francisco for a fun weekend getaway, kept it on through train rides and strolls up to Lombard Street and while sitting on a park bench in Oakland. Now I play it on the bike, walking to my front door, waiting for the courthouse to open. I know there’s a lot of people out there who aren’t a fan of the way Taylor refrains from discussing politics/social justice, but I try not to judge people for their beliefs in the course of my daily life, and so I won’t get into that without having an opportunity to understand her as a person. So in spite of all the discussion, I’m calling it underrated, because the first reviews I read of it were all by white men and all throwing some kind of judgment toward it and it really kind of made me mad, that people were expecting so much and calling someone else’s work a disappointment. Do they not understand how creative output works, that it is not being created and poured into the world in order to appease someone else but because it had to come from the fingers of its creator before they fall off? I also love that it is first TS album to really tackle “mature” themes (she finally wrote songs about drinking and sex!). Taylor Swift at this point only does manifestos and while many are turning up their noses are her playing around with hip-hop and R&B stylings, she’s putting out work that’s exactly her, filter and polish and spit-shine and all. The control and focus and unapologetic honesty with oneself that that takes is something I really admire, something that’s worth channeling anywhere, anytime, any year.

Past years:
2016
2015
2014
2013
2012
2011

2/17/15

“So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten,
Sons are like birds flying upwards over the mountain.”

~Upward Over the Mountain
Iron & Wine, The Creek Drank the Cradle

Tonight all the sounds are waifish and delicate. Tonight all the world is patient and forgiving.

I was pleased to find the new collection of songs from Iron & Wine, beautiful archived tracks from “The Creek Drank the Cradle” era, which led me to listen to that still-remarkable 13-year old debut. Maybe it is the snow, maybe it is the stillness, maybe it is the stiff dirty strings that give me something to do with my hands, but the softness of acoustic songwriting is lately the warmest blanket I can find these nights.

On this record, songs of simple structure and folk storytelling do not demand much attention to figure out, but the payoff is great. Sam Beam has an iconic voice ripped from centuries ago, his verbiage is charmed and weary, and strings, strings, strings, nothing but strings, are focused in the expanse of the story. I remember hearing these songs back when, I remember being impressed, but it wasn’t until probably five or six years ago that I really got into the Iron & Wine catalog, and only in this moment have I taken the time since to go back to where it all began.

These songs of lovers and children and religion and seasons do not tread any new ground for folk music, I would say, other than capturing its essence in an era when such tropes were merely floating at the edges of the mainstream pond (instead of flooding it, as they sometimes do now). Most live in the same chord structure, but this is part of what makes them so good, how spin the old familiar wheel so well. “Lion’s Mane” is instantly the most recognizable and exemplary of Beam’s image. “Upward Over the Mountain” is perhaps the most classic and easily the most heart-stopping and beautiful and I do not think I have ever heard this song without crying or at least wanting to. Beam’s guitar and composition style has some shining moments, like the outro on “Upward” or the extended solo on “Faded From the Winter.” To listen to later songs, like those on the so-so-successful but rather interesting “Kiss Each Other Clean,” you can hear the threads beginning here. 

With the release of his archived tracks instead of newer recordings, the Iron & Wine fan base may wind up being more grateful for the return to this former sound than they are apt to care about when they were recorded. I’ve found them incredibly lovely, perhaps a little more seasoned and private, somehow, than the tracks we’ve become familiar with and maybe that is only because they were locked away so long. I think there is a lesson for artists here, about how sharing your work simply because it is done doesn’t mean that is the right moment for the world to hear it. So too is there a lesson in songs this patient with themselves, that whatever we mean to say may be said best with little adornment and kept close, kept private, like whispered little words on winter nights.

“Time and all you gave,
I was a jerk who preferred the sea
To tussling in the waves
Tugging your skirt singing “please, please, please.”

Now I see love
Dragged on the floor where you walked outside,

Now I seek love
Looking for you in this other girl’s eyes.

Time and all you took
Only my freedom to fuck the whole world,
Promising not to look
Promising light on the sidewalk girls.

Now I see love
There in your car where I said those things.
Now I see love,
Tugging your skirt singing “please, please, please.”

Time and all you gave
There on your cross that I never saw
Well beyond the waves
Dunking my head when I heard you call.

Now I see love,
There in the scab where you pinched my leg
Now I see love,
There on your side of my empty bed.

~Promising Light 
Iron & Wine, The Creek Drank the Cradle

1/19/12

Heard a snippet of this song in the credits for the movie “Timer” (which I highly recommend) and remembered how much I loved it. I think it’s about the marks you make on people, and the desperate hope we all sometimes have that love transcends loss, that memories are enough to keep the fluttering hearts and wide eyes alive.

“Please, remember me happily
By the rosebush laughing
With bruises on my chin, the time when
We counted every black car passing
Your house beneath the hill
And up until someone caught us in the kitchen
With maps, a mountain range, a piggy bank
A vision too removed to mention

But please, remember me fondly
I heard from someone you’re still pretty
And then they went on to say
That the pearly gates
Had some eloquent graffiti
Like “We’ll meet again” and “Fuck the man”
And “Tell my mother not to worry”
And angels with their great handshakes
Were always done in such a hurry

And please, remember me that Halloween
Making fools of all the neighbors
Our faces painted white
By midnight, we’d forgotten one another
And when the morning came I was ashamed
Only now it seems so silly
That season left the world and then returned
And now you’re lit up by the city

So please, remember me mistakenly
In the window of the tallest tower
Calling passers-by but much too high
To see the empty road at happy hour
Gleam and resonate, just like the gates
Around the holy kingdom
With words like “Lost and found” and “Don’t look down”
And “Someone save temptation”

And please, remember me as in the dream
We had as rug-burned babies
Among the fallen trees and fast asleep
Aside the lions and the ladies
That called you what you like and even might
Give a gift for your behavior
A fleeting chance to see a trapeze
Swinger high as any savior

But please, remember me, my misery
And how it lost me all I wanted
Those dogs that love the rain and chasing trains
The colored birds above their running
In circles around the well and where it spells
On the wall behind St. Peter
So bright, on cinder gray, in spray paint
“Who the hell can see forever?”

And please, remember me seldomly
In the car behind the carnival
My hand between your knees, you turned from me
And said, “The trapeze act was wonderful
But never meant to last”, the clown that passed
Saw me just come up with anger
When it filled with circus dogs, the parking lot
Had an element of danger

So please, remember me finally
And all my uphill clawing
My dear, but if I make the pearly gates
I’ll do my best to make a drawing
Of God and Lucifer, a boy and girl
An angel kissing on a sinner
A monkey and a man, a marching band
All around a frightened trapeze swinger”

~The Trapeze Swinger
Iron and Wine, Around the Well

1/12/12

I can’t listen to this song without becoming completely centered. Capturing that feeling of “small-and-all-alone-in-the-world” the series of seemingly innocuous, insignificant sights woven with harsh realities come together to form raw, virtuous meaning. You should probably listen to it.

“I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a building high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small
I saw rainclouds, little babies
And a bridge that had tumbled to the ground
I saw sinners making music
I’ve dreamt of that sound, dreamt of that sound

I was walking far from home
But I carried your letters all the while
I saw lovers in a window
Whisper, “Want me like time, want me like time”
I saw sickness, blooming fruit trees
I saw blood and a bit of it was mine
I saw children in a river
But their lips were still dry, lips were still dry

I was walking far from home
And I found your face mingled in the crowd
Saw a boatful of believers sail off
Talking too loud, talking too loud
I saw sunlight on the water
Saw a bird fall like a hammer from the sky
Saw an old woman on the speed train
She was closing her eyes, closing her eyes
I saw flowers on the hillside
And a millionaire pissing on the lawn
Saw a prisoner take a pistol
And say, “Join me in song, join me in song”

Saw a car crash in the country
Where the prayers run like weeds along the road
I saw strangers stealing kisses
Giving only their clothes, only their clothes

Saw a white dog chase its tail
And a pair of hearts carved into a stone
I saw kindness and an angel
Crying, “Take me back home, take me back home”
Saw a highway, saw an ocean
I saw widows in the temple to the law
Naked dancers in the city
How they spoke for us all, spoke for us all

Saw loaded linen tables
And a motherless colt, then it was gone
I saw hungry brothers waiting
With a radio on, radio on
I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a wet road form a circle
And it came like a call, came like a call
From the Lord

~Walking Far From Home,
Iron and Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean

Some of these words remind me clearly of sights my own eyes have witnessed, and forgotten. Like strangers on trains who I couldn’t help but be drawn to – like the violin player leaning on the wall when I took my first NYC subway ride in junior high. And when I took pictures of the trash on a country road after a garbage truck careened off a pothole. Or when I drive through the bad parts of the city instead of taking 490 home, just because. These are not significant moments in my life, or probably anyone else’s, but they teach us something about the world.

If you open your eyes, the questions you have about the world will be answered. You may not have the words to say it, but you’ll have that understanding in your gut that rises smoke-like to the mind, and you feel like the world makes sense and maybe you’ll be OK in it after all.

This song makes me feel that way.

12/12/10

One more drink tonight as your gray stallion rests
Where he lays in the reins
For all of the speed and the strength he gave

One more kiss tonight from some tall stable girl
She’s like grace from the earth
When you’re all tuckered out and tame

One more tired thing the gray moon on the rise
When your want from the day
Makes you to curse in your sleep at night

One more gift to bring we may well find you laid
Like your steed in his reins
Tangled too tight and too long to fight

~Iron & Wine, Calexio, He Lays In the Reins

I adore this song, I play it in the mornings a lot. Even with the Spanish interlude — a dose of theatricality is not a bad thing. But a beautiful song overall.

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