As anyone lucky enough to catch Sam Beam for a solo show can attest, the man needs little more than a splintered Martin guitar and a microphone to put a lump in your throat. Most true-blooded fans can agree that when he's stripped of embellishment, alone and plain-faced, the Iron & Wine front man is at his level best.
But for a soft-spoken guitar plucker who began laying down songs in his Florida home while his kids were asleep—resulting in a series of rusty four-track recordings that Sub Pop would eventually pick up to release as his debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, in 2002—Beam has since matured with a level of consistency few bedroom artists have the patience or precision to achieve.
His collaboration with Tex-Mex rockers Calexico for 2005's In the Reins, in particular, seems to have had a lasting effect by serving as a thorough immersion into the dynamics of a full-fledged band. Judging from a few late-night appearances following the release of The Shepherd's Dog last year, Beam has developed—if not necessarily an energetic presence—at least a kinship with the stage. In the same way 2004's Our Endless Numbered Days represented a drastic transition into a professional studio, Shepherd's Dog digs unflinchingly into painstaking production. The intricately layered overdubs on opener "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car" and whirling vocal effects of "Carousel" show an artist more than capable of augmenting his bucolic beginnings with exploration of sonic textures. Even the whinnied guitar blushes and tape-splice fabrications of stand-out single "Boy With a Coin" are preceded by "Resurrection Fern," a song of bare-boned, unblemished beauty.
Beyond that, Iron & Wine's performance at Bonnaroo this year showed a songwriter who has evolved well beyond his humble roots. Revamping his entire setlist with what may be best described as reggae-tinged jam sessions, Beam nearly abandoned his mild-mannered strums for rhythmic chord pops, backed by up to seven other musicians to lend the songs a layered density—songs that, beforehand, had been rendered with but a worn-out acoustic and his sister Sarah's tender contralto.
On the other hand, Blitzen Trapper, who will join Iron & Wine this Sunday, stand in stark comparison to whomever they are on the road with. Blasting purebred American rock 'n' roll against jagged, experimental freak-outs, this Portland, Ore., sextet let their influences dangle lightly from their sleeves as they conjure up every essential '70s touchstone and yet still sound ahead of their time. That was never more apparent than during a headlining performance at Exit/In with Fleet Foxes, whose pastoral folk and Appalachian vocal harmonies felt like a honey-and-milk brunch followed by Trapper's pizza-and-beer binge.
Perhaps their most apt stage mates have been Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, due to their garage-rock proclivities and wry humor—Malkmus for his clever lyrics and Trapper for their genre puddle-jumping—that informs their work. That said, lead singer/guitarist and primary songwriter Eric Earley believes their music to be so diverse as to adapt to most any audience, even one yearning for Beam's intimate balladry.
"We're able to sort of run the gamut," Earley tells the Scene. "With Malkmus, who's doing this crazy guitar-rock stuff, we do that too, and then with Iron & Wine, it's this more folk-oriented stuff, which we also do."
Thrust into the critical spotlight for last year's breakout album Wild Mountain Nation, Blitzen Trapper have produced a worthy follow-up with Furr. Taking a cue from early Dylan on the title track for its jangled acoustics and dense lyrical flow, as well as a newfound sense of narrative with "Black River Killer"—perhaps the only song in recent memory to rightly evoke Traveling Wilburys' "Tweeter and the Monkey Man"—before turning to a piano ballad for "Not Your Lover" and capping it all off with the "Helter Skelter" clatter of "Love U," Furr is an avant-rock magpie of the highest caliber. When alt-country seems racked for an original take on its own tired formula, "Stolen Shoes & a Rifle" easily revives it, and then taps into Townes Van Zandt with closer "Lady on the Water" without even a hint of sarcasm one might expect from a band of Northwestern cowpunks.
"I'm not trying to play to any genre or copy anybody outright," says Earley. "For me, it's really trying to follow the song and make it into what it's supposed to be."
For as little as Iron & Wine and Blitzen Trapper may share in their respective styles—backwoods traditionals and throwback album rock, respectively—the two represent the polar opposites in folk music's modern permutations. More than that, both Beam and Earley have proven themselves, as innovative songwriters firmly planted in the canon of American music, to be noteworthy artists in their own rights.
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