Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2007, Part 9 (Iron and Wine – Kings of Leon)

with 5 comments

Iron and Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog

The Shepherd’s Dog presents an interesting argument in terms of immediacy – how long should it take for an album to register? On first listen, I dismissed this album for whatever reason and didn’t take give it a second chance until months later, at which time, the melodies started to stick and it started to make sense. Now, many listens later, I’m still not quite sure what to make of it, but it’s becoming clearer and clearer that it’s very good on some level. Iron and Wine clicks with me the most on their Calexico collaborations, both on In the Reigns and on the excellent cover of “Dark Eyes” on the I’m Not There soundtrack. The Shepherd’s Dog is an obvious offshoot of that partnership, with Calexico’s Joey Burns contributing and the music departing from Iron and Wine’s spare “a guy, his beard, and his guitar” early releases. Yet, it’s denser still than anything Calexico’s ever released with sitar-like guitar effects and a swirling, atmospheric sound. This density is precisely what keeps it from being as immediate as The Creek Drank the Cradle or even the Calexico collaborations and the more band-centric Woman King EP. The layers of sound betray the tunefulness (and there are some seriously great melodies here, like on “White Tooth Man,” “Boy with a Coin,” and the oddly “Rock On”-like “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog),” but it’s worth the multiple listens to make sense of it. I think. I feel like I’m only about halfway there on most of the songs.

Jason Isbell – Sirens of the Ditch

My expectations were sky-high for this, Isbell’s debut solo release, but I was trying really hard to keep them realistic. I’m kind of glad I did, because it’s a perfectly satisfying album, but it sounds like a debut. It makes sense, since I suspect that much of it was written before Isbell made his (0kay, still mostly small) name as “the new guy” in the Drive-By Truckers on Decoration Day. But after hearing his contributions to that album and its follow-up, The Dirty South, it would be impossible to not expect a lot from the guy. I’d rank five of the songs he contributed to those releases* somewhere on a best-of-the-decade list, and the others he wrote and performed with the band were generally pretty great, too.

In any case, Sirens is far more singer-songwriter fare than southern rock bluster, which isn’t all that surprising given Isbell’s status as “the pop guy” in DBT who alienated some fans of the older, funnier, redneck-parodying material. But it is somewhat surprising to see Sirens fail to yield a knock-you-over-the-head modern classic, now that Isbell’s free to follow his muse rather than trying to write to adhere to the style of an established band. He comes close with “Dress Blues,” an affecting Gulf war ballad that he performed solo on tour with DBT, but the slower, fuller arrangement on Sirens doesn’t have the sober weight of the solo version and narrowly avoids crossing over into saccharine. Some other winners include “The Magician” (which seems to reference the melancholy shuffle of ex-bandmate Patterson Hood’s “Heathens”), the nostalgic and upbeat “Grown,” the elegiac “Chicago Promenade,” and the opening rocker, “Brand New Kind of Actress,” which Isbell has admitted is his take on the Lana Clarkson murder. Actually, the only real missteps, songwriting-wise, are “Down in the Hole” (not an Alice in Chains cover, not that it would be better if it were) and “The Devil is My Running Mate,” a political commentary that’s just a little too obvious.

The biggest problem with the album lies in the performances. Sirens has a sterile, yet unfinished, feel that betrays its nature as a side-project recorded largely on break from DBT’s rigorous touring schedule with contributions coming largely from his bandmates. On the upside, these songs all sound far better live when performed by Isbell and his new band, the 400 Unit. If all goes well, maybe this lineup will help him make the killer album he’s capable of. Anyway, this review is essentially the gripe of a fanboy. It’s a great album that will probably play better for newbies than for those who have heard his DBT work first.

* The five songs in question are “Decoration Day,” “Outfit,” “The Day John Henry Died,” “Danko/Manuel,” and “Goddamn Lonely Love.” I maintain that Isbell could have released these five songs, plus some of his other, stronger DBT tracks, maybe one or two from Sirens, and had one of the most impressive debut albums of the last 10 years.

Jay-Z – American Gangster

Okay, I admit I’m underqualified here. The only Jay-Z album I’ve heard in its entirety prior to this had more to do with DJ Dangermouse and the Beatles than Jay-Z. Also, I’ve only had a chance to listen to American Gangster one-and-a-half times prior to writing this, since it came out around the same time that I committed to this year’s marathon. First impressions are strong, though. The only hip-hop albums I tend to get into have big musical components, and this one’s chock full of giant soundscapes strung together from old soul samples. For an album called American Gangster, it’s less violent and menacing than, say, Ghostface Killa’s Fishscale (again, I admit a small frame of reference here), but it has an even more epic, cinematic quality, plus an appealingly self-aware lyricism (“I don’t need no hook for this shit” paradoxically makes for a great hook). I look forward to getting to know it better.

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings – 100 Days, 100 Nights

For an album that so faithfully captures 60s soul, a style and period in which singles ruled supreme, it’s a little odd that 100 Days, 100 Nights doesn’t yield all that many stand-alone songs that connect as “hits” (quotes because pop radio probably wouldn’t touch any of this stuff, barring Kanye West sampling it or something). Instead, it almost works better as a self-contained concept album, where the more-retro-than-retro songs don’t have to compete with Aguilera-ized updates on the sound. It’s a good party album, though, and you could probably throw it on between Martha and the Vandellas and Wilson Pickett, and no one would be the wiser in terms of when it was recorded. I’m sure there’s some greater point to be made about the recurring use of pastiche in postmodern America or about the difference between a dead-on retro facsimile like this vs. the more ironic, modernized retro pop or soul of the Pipettes or Amy Winehouse, but, to the credit of Jones and the Dap Kings, 100 Days sounds like a decent soul album, perhaps most remarkable for the year in which it was released, that otherwise just does what it does, meta- free.

Kings of Leon – Because of the Times

Because of the Times sounds like Kings of Leon’s attempt at a “big” album, along the lines of The Joshua Tree, but it has a few too many things going against it. Most significantly, there’s an inherent rootsiness in the band that just doesn’t jive with the harmonics and reverb that they deploy in this attempt to achieve the arena sound. It’s in the twang of Caleb Followill’s voice, but perhaps even more in the down-hominess of the lyrics. The budget for big drums and atomspheric guitars is jarring with content about Coupe de Villes, makin’ babies, and “mommas.” The balance is similarly off throughout, as if the band can’t decide what it wants to be, and Followill’s earnestness can’t help but come across as feigned. “On Call” evokes both early Fugazi and the Frames, but neither of those bands would waste such an over-the-top chorus on so trite a subject (to get an idea, imagine the theme from Friends being sung over “Waiting Room”). The most successful moments on Because of the Times are instrumental or less reliant on lyrical sincerity. The drums and siren-like guitar on “McFearless” bring to mind the Constantines, a superior, but far less well-known band that manages to combine complicated, indie guitar lines and roots rock seamlessly. “Charmer” is perhaps the best Pixies tribute since Sugar’s “A Good Idea,” and Followill sells it with some screams that come off more convincing than anything else he intones on the album.


Written by Dave

December 17, 2007 at 6:18 pm

5 Responses

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  1. As you can tell, I’m an avid blog commenter.

    Anyway, re: the Jay-Z blurb, being a hip hop “head”, I’d be definitely willing to engage in some sort of a mix CD swap (of the chewer variety) in me feeding you good indie hip hop (full of big sonic landscapes) in exchange for being fed good indie non hip hop (Lyndon’s already made it his mission to fill a lot of my indie holes, much of what I see appear on your marathon list). Mostly (and selfishly) I’d be interested in hearing your opinions (read: a highly respectable music opinion who has no experience with rap/hip hop) on a lot of hip hop out there that you probably haven’t been exposed to because you weren’t immersed in it like me since middle school.

    Euge (soul)

    December 17, 2007 at 10:44 pm

  2. Hey, an entry I can comment on!

    I’ve been wondering since you started the marathon if you were going to come around on The Shepherd’s Dog. I know you weren’t very big on it at first, but I fell for it on the second listen. It started with “Boy With a Coin”, which is probably the catchiest track on the album. But, with each listen songs like “House by the Sea” and “White Tooth Man” started to dig in deeper and deeper. I can put the album on straight through over and over again and never have it get old. My only concern is that the album is so mellow that it’s almost a stepping-stone to lite-rock. Essentially, I feel like it might be a seductive first step into becoming my parents.

    Isbell- Your footnote summarizes it. If I were to make a playlist of the Top X songs of the decade, there’s a good chance all 5 of those would appear. “Outfit” is just a fantastic meditation on fatherhood, but what’s most impressive is how the song plays into country music stereotypes but remains completely fresh and convincing. “John Henry” works on any number of levels, and both “Danko” and “Goddamn Lonely Love” are just gorgeous songs. (Although Danko/Manuel has kind of an odd subject matter for me to use that kind of descriptor) Although I love “Dress Blues”, “Chicago Promenade”, and his live show, I’m a little underwhelmed by this album. That being said. I’m firmly in the camp that believes there’s going to be something absolutely classic coming from Isbell in the future.

    As for American Gangster, I need to give it a serious listen. I love Jay-Z, but it can take me forever to get into him. It took me well over a year to realize the brilliance of The Blueprint.

    Also, feel like you’re about to start hitting some of the year’s meatier releases, which is exciting.

    Oh, and I loved Raina’s entry on winter. It did a nice job of capturing the romance of cold, snowy days that is missed by so many people.


    December 18, 2007 at 1:19 pm

  3. I might be interested in a swap, Euge, but it’ll have to be after the holidays sometime.


    December 18, 2007 at 1:36 pm

  4. After the holidays would work. And Lyndon sucks.

    Euge (soul)

    December 18, 2007 at 3:53 pm

  5. […] Music Marathon 2007, Part 9 (Iron and Wine – …missteps, songwriting-wise, are "Down in the Hole" (not an Alice in Chains cover, not that it … in the down-hominess of the lyrics.  The… […]

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