Iron & Wine - Archive Series Volume No. 1

by Sam England

Sam Beam, better known under the moniker of Iron & Wine, has done what everyone wishes their favourite artist would. He has released an album containing a plethora of those little unreleased gems, which only the true fans bother to find in the deepest, darkest depths of YouTube. You know what I’m talking about; that one artist whose back-catalogue sits comfortably in your Internet browser bookmarks, or if you can live with crippling guilt of such an immoral act, has been illegally downloaded to your library. I would personally double my student loan to see Justin Vernon or Ben Howard give their forgotten songs an official release. However, such a release from Iron & Wine, another juggernaut of the modern folk music scene, is also more than well received.

Don’t be mistaken, this is not some compilation of rejected B-sides thrown together haphazardly for the sake of a minimal effort profit. The release was curated and released by Sam Beam’s self-owned record label, Black Cricket Recording Co., and was mastered together as a record in its own right. What results is a cohesive collection of songs that flows within itself in its charming, lo-fi brilliance.

The vast majority of the sixteen songs on Archive Series Volume No. 1 are demos recorded by Beam in the late 90s and early 00s, at the same time that he was working on his debut LP, The Creek Drank The Cradle (itself an album of demos, originally meant for further production). In some sense then, Archive Series can be seen as somewhat of a companion album to his debut effort. This is by no means a bad thing. The Creek Drank The Cradle essentially catapulted Beam into mainstream success, and Pitchfork saw it as the 137th best album of that decade. As such, despite whatever reason these songs were left off of the original release for, the musical quality of them stands strong.

The production is undeniably lo-fi, but in such a way that every single song on the release comes across as so exquisitely honest – an attribute in music that truly distinguishes the good from the beautiful. The slight background noise present, to some extent, on all of the tracks also provides as a boost to the effect that this album is, essentially, a musical time capsule back to two decades ago. Sam Beam stated himself of putting the album together this year:

It’s a kick in the head to shake hands with yourself fifteen years ago. Your memory is so caught up, is so connected to music, a lot of times you’re immediately transported back to your Grandma’s kitchen. I got to hear the ambience of my apartment at the time, things like that.

The record begins with opening track Slow Black River. An odd choice for an opener, perhaps, as this song sees Beam’s vocals take on a much deeper tone than has really been heard from him before. The deepness however, is what actually makes this song particularly special. It has such a warmth to it – a closeness I suppose, that means it has already received repeated plays from me.

The next songs, The Wind Is Low and Eden, serve to silence anyone who argues that lo-fi means a lack of intricacy. The former offers forward, multiple-layered tracks of vocals and a wonderful banjo accompaniment, showing its face among the several different progressions throughout the song. The latter, another personal favourite of mine, presents a rather beautiful vocal melody and a repeating treble phrase of overlaid guitar that becomes quite addictive from first listen.

The record continues in much the same light, with various combinations of guitar, banjo, and slide guitar providing a somewhat wintry backing to Beam’s trademark hushed vocals. It is only upon the conclusion of Judgement, a song that can only be described paradoxically as a gentle running song, with its steady percussion holding the electric guitar and banjo in a rhythm suited to such an activity, but lacking the overt motivational capabilities these types of songs stereotypically have, that we see a more springtime feel take over.

Of course, all of these transitions happen incredibly gradually. The album should be seen as a cohesive piece of music, and ideally listened to as such. There is an ebb and flow clearly present, but it is a subtle one, incredibly well-suited to background listening. In fact, the next few songs very much blend into one another. Whilst each song does still maintain its own character, the various bouncing guitar picking patterns of Sing Song Bird through to Everyone’s Summer Of 95 transition from one to the next to tell the musical story of Spring to Summer days, spent sat in the shade of some tree, noodling away on an old guitar without a care.

By the time we reach Minor Piano Keys, the record has evolved back into a more slow-paced creature, yet still maintaining the feeling of contentment that the summery songs provided. I guess you could say that these are the tracks of late August; when the weather is still warm but the franticness of the first Summer months has faded away to laidback relaxation. It is within these last tracks that some of the true hidden gems are found. Penultimate track, Wade Across The Water, contains a delightful melody upon which a banjo and guitar simultaneously duet, that will surely not fail to make you smile. Similarly, closing number, Postcard, gives you an overlaid guitar melody that simply radiates unassuming happiness, which in combination with the vocals and their lyrical content, provides a song so well suited as a conclusion to the album.

As for some closing notes then, Archive Series Volume No. 1 is a wonderful collection of songs. Despite the context within which they have come together, the tracks combine to create a seamlessly cohesive and flowing piece of music. If you were a fan of his first album, you will love this, as controversially I actually believe this record to be better than the original. The only real negative worth mentioning is that sometimes it is disappointing that a few of the songs have quite abrupt endings. However, this is commonplace among demo versions of songs, and only really stands to show how enjoyable the tracks actually are. This is an album to be listened to as an ambient accompaniment to a long study session, or a slow-paced walk through the hills around the time of sunset.