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Iron And Wine
Woman King EP
Sub Pop

Theodore Roosevelt — you know, the 26th president of the United States — was fond of quoting a favorite proverb when talking about the country's role in world politics: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." And while the connection between the former president and music may not be entirely clear, necessary, or advised, I'm going to make it anyway.

Iron and Wine have become experts at speaking softly. Over the course of two albums, 2002's The Creek Drank the Cradle and 2004's Our Endless Numbered Days, and a handful of EPs, Sam Beam, the driving force behind the group, has managed to capture the attention of listeners with nothing more than a few acoustic guitars and his hushed-whisper vocals. The quietness forced you to pay close attention, to lean in close and work at not missing anything, and the results were often astonishingly beautiful. But after listening to Woman King, the group's latest EP, I began to realize that a vital part of the equation was missing from their earlier albums.

As it turns out, what was missing was Roosevelt's "big stick" — the force and intensity that acts as a counterpoint to the lyrics' subdued beauty. On Woman King — which, as the title suggests, finds a thematic focus in various women — the big stick appears in the form of an increased presence of percussion and slide guitar, the surprising addition of electric guitar, and a fierceness in rhythm and Beam's vocals. The title track, a funky, bluesy number, opens with an aggressive pattern tapped out on the rims of the drums. Over the rhythmic and somewhat primitive-sounding beat, Beam sings: "Blackbird claw, raven wing/ Under the red sunlight/ Long clothesline, two shirt sleeves/ Waving as we go by." Buried underneath the evocative vocals and the slide guitar is the growl of a murky, fuzzy electric guitar. The music adds a simmering intensity to the lyrics: "Hundred years, hundred more/ Someday we may see a/ Woman king, sword in hand/ Swing at some evil and bleed." The force of "Woman King" carries over into "Freedom Hangs Like Heaven," an almost prototypical blues song propelled by the martial clomp of drums and piano. "Mary, carry your babe/ Bound up tight like lips around a whimper," the song begins. As it progresses, the title track's biblical feel becomes more explicit: "Ain't nobody knows what the newborn holds/ But his mama says he'll walk on water/ And wander back home."

Beam's focus on the power and strength of women finds its most forceful expression in "Evening on the Ground (Lilith's Song)." The track opens with roiling guitar and piano, lending a driving intensity which continues to build throughout the song. The combination of Irish pipes (or an interesting combination of fiddles, I can't be sure) and a furiously-strummed electric guitar in the middle of the tune make this Iron and Wine's most aggressive song to date. At one point, Beam nearly shouts out the lyrics: "We were born to fuck each other/ One way or another" — quite a departure from the subdued presentation we expect from him.

The effect of the newfound force present in these three tracks is exhilarating. There's a vitality here that makes the other three songs on the album — "Jezebel," "Gray Stables," and "My Lady's House" — seem like somewhat of a letdown. This is a minor complaint, of course, because there isn't anything fundamentally wrong with these songs — they are, after all, more evidence of Beam's talent for weaving hushed vocals around delicate melodies. "My Lady's House," in particular, is a beautiful duet between Beam and his sister Sarah. It's just that, placed next to the "big sticks" of "Woman King," "Freedom Hangs Like Heaven," and "Evening on the Ground," these songs fail to engage the listener as immediately. Ultimately, Woman King promises remarkable things to come for Iron and Wine, especially if Beam continues to expand his musical palette.

by Lee Templeton

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