Coming to prominence as a hushed, bearded indie folker, Sam Beam is still best known as the guy behind the cover of 'Such Great Heights' used in that M&Ms commercial. Barring that, it's also hard to shake the initial impression left by his debut The Creek Drank The Cradle, one of Beam as a rustic, minimalist singer/songwriter who played banjo or acoustic guitar with no accompaniment and had production quality that sounded like it was recorded in a dusty, dilapidated barn on a hand-me-down 4-track. But starting with Our Endless Numbered Days, and especially his EP collaboration with Calexico, Beam moved toward a more full band style that plays strongly to the gypsy/hippie atmosphere of Bonnaroo. His voice simultaneously became more energetic and emotive. No more whispering in the direction of his beard and toes; in fact, on Kiss Each Other Clean he even swears a couple times.
I saw Iron & Wine earlier this Spring, right around the release of Kiss Each Other Clean, and was surprised—in a good way—by this change which I had missed out on. They opened with a grooving version of 'Boy With A Coin' from 2007's The Shepherd's Dog, Beam chugging along on an electric guitar with wah-wah pedal and all. His nine-or-so piece band included a drummer and percussionist, and this same expansive and varied collection of instruments carries over to this record (as well as the preceding The Shepherd's Dog). You can be sure that every stock 70s AOR instrument makes an appearance here, whether it be a sax solo (as heard on 'Big Burned Hand'), marimbas and other 'ethnic' percussion instruments, what is either a Clavinet or similarly funky organ, piano, and so on. I'm frankly surprised he didn't work in a harmonica somewhere.
While the chillwave bands are busy evoking memories and feelings of the 1980s, and even Destroyer's recent Kaputt album has a similar 80s style, Beam is stuck in the 70s. The vibe Kiss Each Other Clean goes for reminds me of the sort of music people would drive around their rural small towns to back in that decade, sort of like a less hard rock version of music you could imagine the characters from the movie Dazed And Confused listening to. To give you an example, album closer 'Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me' makes effective use of its seven minutes, allowing you time to stop at a carryout on the way to a party for cigarettes and cheap beer and get back in the car before the song ends.
As such, Kiss Each Other Clean is the polar opposite of The Creek Drank The Cradle in that it's a 'hang out with your friends' kind of record. You put it on to create a certain vibe. As a consequence, the hooks aren't as strong as they could be because they don't need to be. Beam is painting in broad strokes with a wide palette of sounds at his disposal. This often means while he doesn't lack for ideas as to what sounds to use, the songs sometimes don't add up in memorable ways. Taken as a whole, it's a fine album, and great fun to listen to with a few friends. Indeed, I can certainly attest to the appeal of these songs in concert. However, like the good time grooves of late 70s Grateful Dead live shows, this kind of music doesn't translate well to a studio album.
Over the past few months as I've listened to Kiss Each Other Clean it never stays with me for very long. I've put off writing about it for months because it inspires no strong feelings or ideas in me. I only recently realized this is because it's not trying to. There are no grand statements here; the stakes are low and the songwriting is laid back in a sometimes-formless kind of way. How much you'll enjoy this depends almost entirely on how much you enjoy just chilling with some friends, talking about nothing much of import, simply enjoying the weather and passing the afternoon and/or night without incident. You never remember these times past a week or so later, but that's exactly why you need to have them.