Sub Pop has fallen on hard times. I mean, come on, once Kurt Cobain died, Sub Pop became sub par (bad pun but true). We all first heard of Sub Pop Records when we all bought Nirvana’s Nevermind. But come on, that was back in 1991. It is 2003 and there hasn’t been a good Sub Pop release since the Afghan Whigs released Gentlemen in 1993.So, since Nirvana and grunge fell, Sub Pop has tried to find different things to release. And in 2002 Sub Pop released two albums that were both a departure from their usual releases and two great albums. The first great (and surprising) release was David Cross’s Shut Up You F**king Baby, a two disc comedy album from the former Mr. Show star.
But that is not the album that will save Sub Pop. The label’s saving grace lies in one man: Samuel Beam.
Beam records under the name Iron and Wine. He plays all the instruments, sings all the vocals, mixes and records everything on the absolutely amazing The Creek Drank the Cradle.
This album is something totally out of left field for both Sub Pop and the music industry as a whole. It’s one man and his tape machine in a room, playing guitar, banjo, and singing southern folk songs in a hushed-out voice.
His lyrics tell vivid stories with lush pictures of muddy Bibles, dead snakes in creek beds, and family relationships.
To imagine what Samuel Beam sounds like, let’s pretend two men could have children. Imagine that Will Oldham (of Palace Music, Palace Brothers, and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) and Nick Drake had a child.
Will and Nick lived in a duplex with Elliott Smith, who gave the kid singing lessons. They raised him in Florida and taught him to love his guitar, good lyrics, and a good melody.
But when the child was 17, Oldham and Drake died in a car crash. The courts then decided to have the child go to Dayton, Ohio and live with his uncle, Robert Pollard.
Uncle Rob taught the boy that you don’t need shiny production to win people’s hearts; all you need is a song and a four-track tape recorder.
That, my friends, is how Iron and Wine took shape.
The album opens with the soft acoustic guitar of “Lion’s Mane.” The sound quietly unfolds to Beam singing, “love is a tired symphony/ you hum when you’re awake/ and love is a crying baby/ mama warned you not to shake.”
Around the two-minute mark the slide guitar and banjo duet appear and remain the focus for the rest of the song.
Other aspects that make Iron and Wine so appealing are the lines about love. I would not say that they are love songs, though, because these transcend “normal” love songs.
On “Bird Stealing Bread” he sings, “Do his hands in your hair/ feel a lot like a thing/ you believe in,” and from his voice you get the impression that Sam really wants to know or otherwise he will go into the woods and sob.
The only bad song on the album is the banjo-dependent “The Rooster Moans,” though as I write this I still do enjoy this song. See, this song reminds me of Tom Waits’ “Get Behind the Mule.” Both are good songs; it’s just that I don’t like a song that heavy on the low register of the banjo.
But, all in all, this entire album is amazing. When I first heard it I thought that it might make my best of 2002 list. Then, after about 12 listens, I thought that it was top 10 material.
Then when I made out the list I put it at number six, but by the time I finished the list I had placed it at number three, which is were it belongs.
It’s an amazing album that is extremely simple, especially compared to my number one and two. But, even though it is extremely simple, it is just as amazing as the top two.