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Iron & Wine shows growth through experimentation 

Our image of Sam Beam, the man behind the Iron & Wine moniker, will probably always filter first through his stark and stunning 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle. That LP's slender acoustic arrangements, homespun recording and Beam's solitary whisper blended into daguerreotype songs rich in red-loam imagery and Bible Belt dualities.

On the surface, Beam hasn't changed much more than time would dictate since that debut. The 36-year-old's hairline has receded some, his Civil War-officer beard may have a touch of grey hidden in it, and his all-girl brood recently expanded again and now numbers five.

When Beam speaks, it's still with the cordial affability of a Southerner raised right. Those idiosyncratic narratives, too, remain stocked with the lush imagery, Biblical echoes, and bygone-love tales that first sprang from Beam's Chapin, S.C. roots.

Musically, though, Beam is barely recognizable from what were, essentially, the demos of a hobbyist on Creek. Since then, his three full-lengths and a bundle of EPs and collaborations have become increasingly sonically sophisticated. Their growth curve charts the restlessness and curiosity of any artist worthy of the title. (The b-sides, rarities and outtakes collected on 2009's career-spanning Around the Well mark every stage but the latest on Beam's sonic trajectory.)

"At this point, I'm just trying to keep myself surprised," Beam chuckles over the phone from his home outside Austin, Texas. "It's harder to do, so I play with a lot of other people who are better than me and can easily surprise me."

Kiss Each Other Clean, Iron & Wine's latest, was recorded over nine months as Beam bounced between his home studio and Chicago, where sessions with members of Califone, Isotope 217, Antiblas and Calexico yielded all the surprise Beam could hope for. With its bright major-key chords, upbeat tempos, splashy horn sections and poppy synthesizers, the 10 tracks are an updated take on the Golden Age of '70s radio.

Beam cites a host of that era's airwave regulars as inspiration, and you can hear subtle elements of Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Billy Preston and Stevie Wonder sprinkled throughout. It was also an era largely uncontaminated by hipster edicts on what was cool and what wasn't — "whatever you heard on the radio, that's just what music was and you didn't question it," he says — which added to Beam's childhood-colored nostalgia. The first appearances of synthesizers in pop music, too, piqued his interest and informed many of the decisions made during the KEOC sessions.

"I love that time," he says, because "people were accustomed to dealing with acoustic instruments and then they had these synthetic sounds to throw in there, too. It was often kind of jarring, very different sonic textures and lots of contrast, which I thought was fun."

Contrasts have always provided rich fodder for Beam's lyrics, but on this record he wanted those dualities to extend to the music, too. "I like the idea that the record is a bit of an upbeat danceable record, but at the same time some of the sentiment is kind of hard medicine, you know, taken with a spoonful of sugar."

But where middling acts tend to get hijacked by the eras or artists they wind up aping, Beam puts his stamp on everything he brings into the fold here. These are not, as he says, "impressions." Some of the credit belongs to Beam's producer over the last three Iron & Wine full-lengths, Brian Deck (Califone, Modest Mouse), whose studio sleight-of-hand adds veils of modern textures.

For Kiss Each Other Clean, Beam typically recorded three or four different basic approaches to each song, then brought the music to Deck and the band to decide which would prove most fertile in the collaborative process. Beam has always preferred creative studio tinkering to touring, but says he has finally embraced the latter — in large part because the band he's on the road with is the same one whose experiments in the studio proved so advantageous.

That means even the sparsest Iron & Wine gems are now subject to alteration. One song veers toward free jazz, he says, another toward the doo-wop of The Flamingos; one resembles a minimalist Steve Reich piece, the next ventures into Al Green R&B territory.

"I don't mean for it to be like this jukebox," Beam laughs, "but at the same time the records now are such a genre potpourri that it's really fun to have people that can stretch out and do it all. We take the old songs and beef 'em up like the new ones, we take new ones and strip 'em down like the old ones. Everything changes."

That, of course, includes Sam Beam, songwriter.

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