Southern Cross

Sam Beam is a one-man tent revival.



Crocodile Cafe, 441-5611, $7

9 p.m. Wed., Sept. 25

“Rock is back!” blared Rolling Stone‘s Sept. 19 cover, attendant upon a series of windy stories about the White Stripes, the Hives, the Vines, the White Vines, the Strokes, the Flukes, the Shite Blights, the Whines, the White Hypes, and whoever else is supposed to be pulling rock music out of the doldrums imposed upon us by five years of pinheaded tweener dance-pop and affected hip-hop.

That’s all well and good. However, as much as we like to see Rolling Stone happy, the gray lady once again turns molehills into mountains by trotting out the hoary specter of rock’s imminent demise, for the umpteen-hundredth time.

See, you know how it is; you know there’s good music being recorded and released all the time and it’s just a matter of tracking that stuff down, since it’s never going to show up on the major channels.

Beg pardon? Rock is back? Where was all this hoopla when the likes of Chocolate Genius, the Negro Problem, Moris Tepper, Lambchop, Blackalicious, and the Flaming-fer-chrissakes-Lips—who ought to have scored RS‘ cover by now—were bending genres and heads with some of the most innovative recordings of the last half-decade? (At the VMA ceremonies, that’s where, jockeying for a clear lens-path to Christina Aguilera’s midriff. It is to weep.)

Bringing us, by way of roundabout kvetching, to this absolutely stunning album by a fella named Sam Beam, who isn’t really a professional musician at all. Go figure.

Beam, whose debut album appears under the band moniker Iron & Wine, is a film teacher by trade. Raised in South Carolina, currently enjoying domestic life (replete with a four-week-old baby) in Florida, Beam’s a guy whose very speech seems to emerge from the landscape of the American South. In an easy, unaffected drawl, he spins the story of how The Creek Drank the Cradle—a series of home recordings assembled with a string of secondhand instruments and PC software—came to be released on a label at the diametrically opposite end of the lower 48.

“I’d been doing [home recording] for a long time,” Beam says. “But I was doing a lot of other things as well. I’d gone to art school for a while and done some painting and photography work. And I’d pretty recently started getting into film. I never really considered music as a career.”

In his spare time at home, with a few throwaway guitars and banjos, Sam Beam spent a few years putting down spooky, haunting tales of rural Americana, painted in shades of brown and red. In other words, Beam was your classic bedroom band, making his own personal mix tapes and passing them around to friends.

That state of affairs held until, several months back, friends in the Seattle-based band Carissa’s Wierd passed one of Beam’s tapes to somebody at Sub Pop.

“And they gave me a call,” he continues, sounding as surprised as he must have been some months ago.

As well they might have given Sam Beam a call. Approximately one-third of the tape that made it to Sub Pop eventually wound up on The Creek Drank the Cradle. The rest was made up of music Beam had had in the can—in the hard drive, rather—for quite a few years. But it’s impossible to tell where one year’s product ends and the next begins, which speaks volumes about the man’s consistency.

Or, perhaps more accurately, about the long-established tradition in which Beam is working. If his immediate influences are fairly evident—Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen loom largest—they’ve also been fully digested, and you never once get the feeling that Beam is aping it. To say that “Bird Stealing Bread” might have come from Pink Moon is to get it backward; the song is very much Beam’s own, and what you hear isn’t so much an echo as a finely-attuned resonance.

Like Cohen’s, Beam’s lyrics thrive in the concrete mode, letting the power of the images carry the deeper drama of the song: “We found your name across the chapel door/Carved in cursive with a table fork/Muddy hymnals and some boot marks where you’ve been.” In the small, folksy narratives played out on The Creek Drank the Cradle, we’re constantly arriving just after the action’s taken place. The broken-up lovers in “Promising Light” still see each other in the dome lights of empty cars; the narrator of “Weary Memory” finds a pair of her mittens left behind a box of pictures, and that’s all it takes.

“I think I work with the visual a lot when I write,” says Beam. “I’ve never been all that good at nonspecific writing.” His attention to detail also saves The Creek Drank the Cradle from lapsing into a predictable meditation on Southern decay; though the album often sounds like it was recorded in a tin can under 4 feet of water—a perfect complement to the music, which sounds both ancient and timeless—the stories and the characters here are clearly alive, sometimes painfully so.

In keeping with that aesthetic, Beam hasn’t even soundproofed his recording room at home.

“I kept all the ambient noise,” he says, a little proudly. “The most production I did, really, was to cut the bottom end out of some of the instruments. I like that tinny sound. A lot of the instruments I use sound that way, anyway. I’ve got this great guitar that a friend pulled out of the dumpster for me. It’s beautiful.”