Iron & Wine
Our Endless Numbered Days
The brainchild of family man and film professor Sam Beam, The Creek Drank the Cradle, Iron and Wine's magical, hushed debut, won him an unusually devoted fan-base of hipsters who
seemed like they would be more into the new Get Up Kids record than a quasi-religious southern folk act. Anyone who doubts this wasn't at their recent Buffalo show, where a throng of bespectacled Weezer-wannabes from Rochester and Toronto packed into Nietzsche’s to gaze,
motionless, in silent awe at the quietest band I had ever seen (my inebriated girlfriend was actually shushed for talking in regular conversational tones). Beam coyly tipped his hat to his unexpectedly with-it Buffalo audience by doing a super-mellow version of The Postal
Service’s "Such Great Heights" as an encore.
Their songs are indeed gorgeous, with heart-melting harmonies, and their almost absurdly quiet delivery evokes the subtle genius of Nick Drake, another shoe gazing folkie who's been wholeheartedly embraced by the pop illuminati. But the key to their first
work's "cool" appeal was largely a matter of production. The Creek Drank the Cradle was, by virtue of economic necessity, recorded on an old four-track in Beam's bedroom, and replete with fuzz and tape hiss, softening the sharp, trebly end of a guitar's dynamic
range and obscuring the vocals with a thin, midrange distortion that made the lyrics partially indecipherable. Inadvertently or not, the lo-fi production of Creek gave it a lush, nostalgic texture, at once warm and distant, and an almost experimental quality that suggested
a postmodern sonic sophistication that folkies typically lack. This may be why Sub Pop wisely released Beam's demos with very little tweaking, rather than re-recording the songs. It was this intimate, whisper-on-the-phone quality that initially drew me and many others into the
Iron and Wine audience, and it is totally lacking on Our Endless Numbered Days, their first professionally engineered album.
The new record is instead flawlessly recorded, every string-scrape and sibilant perfectly reproduced. To be fair, this is no sell-out; the style and substance of the music are totally intact, complete with Bible-belt imagery, sparse arrangements and understated
melodic beauty. Beam brought his tour "band" into the studio for Days, but it's a band that can be drowned out by crowd murmur; no Dylanesque electric conversion here. Some tracks enjoy a little percussive underscoring, but they can only be described as
"rocking out" for about 20-30 seconds on a single track. Beam's songs are of a piece with his earlier work, although there is a little more picking and a little less strumming. In fact, one could argue that this is what Iron and Wine really sound like, and it is an
excellent folk album. My disappointment lies, I guess, in my own misconceptions: I thought Beam was more than just a folk musician. Listening to the pristine, skeletal Days reminds me of seeing nude pictures of Madonna in Penthouse when I was a kid: they were OK,
but I thought she was way hotter with her clothes on.
DJ Cutler is a certified cratedigger. So when he said last fall that he was putting together a mix tape, you knew it’d take a while, with new additions constantly migrating from dusty thrift shop racks to an ambitious and crowded collaboration released in March as “Lettuce
Arise.” The forty-plus track whirlpool of genres has equal footing in both old and new schools, making many unlikely beatfellows and featuring a handful of local artists.
There’s an amusing polarity in Cutler’s style on and off the stage. His general demeanor is mellow like Mr. Rogers, but his scratches are aggressive like Mr. T, putting mean kick into some already spicy beats with a unique frantic pace. A left-of-center underground
mentality is kept throughout the mix, with no shortage of jabs at mainstream culture, and a few uppercuts at the man.
Local hip-hop titan and Beast Pusher Tone @las hits leadoff, and along with spiritual partner in pseudo-intellectualism Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the tone is set - keep your thoughts outside the box, and your rules out the window. But while turning up the tempo of Bob Marley’s
“Jammin’” works great behind rhymes from BMW and Dead Prez, hearing an entire verse and bridge from a helium-induced Marley sure sounds bunk to me. I’m all for experimentation, but that’s one rule I’d like everyone to bring back - let’s keep vocals at their
delivered pitch, and leave the Chipmunks to their assorted holiday albums.
But my frustration’s short-lived, as Cutler blends the up-tempo “Jammin’” with Burning Spear’s “Marcus Garvey,” putting another Dead Prez verse over it, along with a madcap chipped-shoulder rhyme from East Side native X-Now. And while Outkast’s Dre drops some
knowledge over the Funky Meters’ “Sissy Strut,” I’d listened to the tape three times before I’d paid attention to a word - I don’t care what they called it, that’s a mean strut that takes a mighty verse to get pushed to the background.
Cutler shows his chops in scratching note for note with Thelonious Monk’s stepladder stroll “Little Rootie Tootie,” leaving it at Milt Jackson’s vibraphone doorstep to begin a brilliant double-dip suite. “Prophet Suite” blends Pete Rock’s Modern Jazz Quartet
remix of Jeru tha Damaja’s classic “Can’t Stop the Prophet” with the original beat DJ Premier borrowed from the Crusaders, while the smooth “John Barleycorn Suite” makes collaborators out of Eddie Harris, Bob James, Louis Logic, Black Sheep, Scoopie Brucie, and is
that Ralph the Muppet?
A verse from Catastrophic Minds’ No Comp is happily sandwiched by the Pharcyde’s “Runnin’” and De La Soul’s “Stakes is High” to take the first side home with a bang, while Ramsey Lewis gets the second side going with an easy groove that Cutler thickens and tops
with verses from Q-Tip and L-Boogie. And speaking of thickening, Ugly Duckling’s “Meatshake Drive Thru” is a real gutbuster, from the idea to the ridiculously absurd delivery. Finding a matching bass note, Cutler spots Maynard Ferguson’s “Mr. Mellow” as both an intro
and outro to the “Meatshake,” holding the beat with great stop-start antics that show a man in control of his turntables.
Having proven his ability to cut a mean riff over a cooler jazzy beat, Cutler tears up a breakbeat intro before Tone @las reappears alongside Nick Zero, the Pseudo-Intellectuals united with help from Main Source for “Fakin’ the Funk.” The eternal doubter @las flattens
the TRL hip-poppers with his opening line - “Hip-hop doesn’t live, it just is/Just cuz you play on pop, doesn’t mean that you fizz.”
Now here’s where Cutler the cratedigger really makes us proud. I don’t know who the Kashmere Stage Band is, where they’re from, or what they’re doing now, but I know they make some swingin’ finger-lickin’ funk based on the record Cutler probably found at some
yard sale and laid a frenzied scratch over. He follows it with the extended cut and break lesson that every hardcore hip-hop enthusiast was holding out for, before putting the Jazz Messengers behind a spirited verse from Ajent O.
Cutler puts the term “home stretch” to good use in a brilliant soul medley that slaps a huge old school stamp on this collection, beginning with the Isley Brothers’ “I Turned You On,” and gliding on cruise control through Cannonball Adderly’s “Hummin’,” with
stops at the Coasters, Al Hirt, the Detroit Emeralds, and Jack McDuff along the way. After a “Blacksteel Break” segue gives Cleveland collaborator Furious the last word, Cutler lays out one more dizzying scratch over a breezy Santana beat before fading out.
There’s so much ground covered on this mix that there’s guaranteed to be something for everyone. Even Pops Gallivan, who at one point lamented that “this crap is nothing but noise” (during the “Lettuce Break”), jumped at the sound of McDuff a few minutes later. It
may be a lot to ingest, but it’s put together well enough to leave you wanting even more. For now, it’s only been released on tape, leaving room for some great bonus filler that varies with each batch made. The CD will be available this month, and both will be available
anywhere Cutler appears, whether he’s holding court at Frank’s; performing with (One), the newly formed Buffalo-Cleveland quintet that also includes X-Now and Furious; or hovering in cyberspace at deepthinka.com.