Sam Beam’s now decade-old, home-recorded “The Creek That Drank the Cradle” nestled a stripped- down sound of Americana with his beardy, bookish meekness. His became the crooning voice of the well-worn, of intimate human stories and of a soft-stated Gnosticism. It was raw, real, a herald to the ubiquitous folk vogue and eventually to the Heemstra everyman of the last five years or so.
Each release after his debut gave an invigorating add-on to this base sound, chorus-less and melody heavy. “Our Endless Numbered Days” cleaned up some of the tarnish of the crappy equipment, which had formerly been put to good aesthetic use. And then his last full-length, “The Shepherd’s Dog,” added electric and, more importantly, an eclectic percussive scheme lifted from West African music. Standout tracks like “House By the Sea” and “Boy With a Coin” were good signs that, despite Beam’s golden voice, the band’s sound could move into a more esoteric, mystic range.
That’s all backdrop to “Kiss Each Other Clean,” which also tinkers with its own plenty of new groovy trinkets that sometimes work and sometimes rattle obnoxiously around an otherwise organic tenderness.
In interview, Beam noted the influence of ‘70s AM, which accounts for at least some of the newness in his presentation. With a sugary falsetto like his, it seems like a fair choice to go for a more boisterous, poppy delivery.
There’s also a newborn harmonic presence (“Half Moon”), electronic texture (“Walking Far From Home” and “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough”), and a funky horn section that can get a little too rambunctious at times (especially “Big Burned Hand”). The parts aren’t always integrated as patiently as they should be—in the context of the album as a whole, but even within certain songs.
Essentially, this works better as a collection of stand-alone songs—the arch from track-to-track gets a bit disjointed. Thankfully there are some standouts. “Rabbit Will Run” has an earthy, barbaric feel, with hollow cuckoo chirps at the center before going heavy then flute-y then dissonant at keyboard. It’s just as twisted up as it sounds on paper.
“Glad Men Singing” is that perfectly feel-good Fleetwood Mac song that he set out to make, and has me convinced that he could go for a more weightless pop variety in the future.
And the closing track, “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me,” beeps about, and its energy does not feel as contrived as it does at other places: the vocal accompaniment, the horns and low-tempo electric all have a sense of timing and place.
But these make up the whole of the album’s pure charms. Other tracks gloss up mediocre melody structures (“Walking Far From Home”), or else feel so reminiscent of old material that any would-be sentiment feels set up, no longer a spontaneous, memory-filled narrative (see “Tree By the River,” “Godless Brother In Love”). But my biggest complaint is that his digital-age embellishments, even when cool, don’t add much to the types of stories he sets out to tell.
These doodads, all of Beam’s inventions, don’t ever keep this from being signature, if grade B, Iron & Wine iteration. It has all the charm, faux Faulkner lyricism, and nice subtlety to make it affecting or boring in equal measures—like the band itself. Beam will always be a place to store broken-in places and memories.