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CD of the Week: Woman King

The refined aesthetic of Iron & Wine’s latest release, Woman King, is evident upon first glance. A perfectly square array of cheap porcelain thimbles comprises the cover art. They appear almost sacred in their arrangement and are imprinted with symbols, such as a house with a heart around it (perhaps a reference to the track “My Lady’s House”) and an image of Princess Diana with Prince Charles (perhaps calling attention to the theme of “woman king” and the general somber mood of the EP).

Other thimbles feature images of birds, trees and even the biblical ram; all metaphors characteristic of the distinctively earthy Iron & Wine sound. But perhaps the most powerful image is the perfectly ordinary brass thimble, which contrasts ironically with its showy partners. This is Sam Beam, the humble university professor-cum-indie-rockstar who records under the name Iron & Wine.

Following as the latest link in the pattern of Album, EP, Album, EP, this six-song record is bold and refreshingly energetic. With startling lines like “We were born to fuck each other one way or another,” Woman King clearly pushes the limits of Beam’s established (if that word can be used to describe a career of under three years) raspy and understated style. The distorted guitar in “Evening on the Ground” and the slick bass line of “Freedom Hangs Like Heaven” lend these songs a simply bad-ass vibe. Packing a punch and a twang, these songs may cause dancing, foot tapping and other reactions not normally associated with the band’s previous efforts.

Yet Beam’s soothingly repetitive acoustic guitar licks and his wispy vocals affirm the record’s Iron & Wine identity. Woman King is laced with elegant subtlety, clever word play, powerful emotion and all the other goodies that pulled Beam so quickly from his basement recording studio into the indie limelight. The solidly composed title track, “Woman King,” abounds with precise rhythms and haunting poetry. In the singular lament, “My Lady’s House,” Beam taps into emotional wavelengths à la Nick Drake (one of his self-confessed primary influences), sighing lines like “No hands are half as firm or gentle as they’d like to be.”

Key to Woman King’s effect is its masterful performance and production.

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Elegantly shaped by producer, Brian Deck, the layered instrumentation is memorable and brilliantly nuanced. With elements like the percussive stick-click backing to “Woman King” and the piano break in “My Lady’s House”, the EP evokes a sense of organic composition so rarely found in this age of overproduction and electronic precision. Empty space is masterfully balanced with patches of soulful melody and percussive touch. The march-like dulcimer tones in “Jezebel” and the down-home fiddle playing in “Gray Stables” provide a crowning dose of texture.Packed with biblical references, graceful metaphors and subtle word puzzles,

Woman King is a feast for the ears and the mind alike. Though Beam’s earthy whisper and meticulous songwriting seem subtle enough to fit inside one of the gaudy thimbles on the cover, this EP is packed with intellectual fodder, refined musicianship and visceral appeal.

—James F. Collins

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