Iron and Wine
A college cinematography teacher from Miami, Sam "Iron and Wine" Beam salt-of-the-earthed himself into the indie spotlight with 2002's And the Creek Drank the Cradle, a result of demo tapes almost blindly sent to Sub Pop.
Like that album, Our Endless Numbered Days is a low-key gem made up of only Beam's vocals, guitar, and minor accompaniment. With music this spare, an artist really has to have the goods, and Beam has them. On And the Creek Drank the Cradle, unforgettable hooks and tink-tink guitar pluckings emerged as if something brand-new. When he's on, Beam almost sounds like the first to engage in this form of low-key indie songcraft. But he's not the first. The closest cousin would be Will Oldham, along with a legion of '90s bedroom balladeers.
There's a gamier feel to Endless and a folksier quality. The folksy tendencies draw favorably from the early-'70s afternoon-rock minimalism of Poco or Bread, especially the latter. Let the hip guard down: If someone played a Bread outtake and claimed it to be, well, Iron and Wine, you'd believe the claim and be all over the song like a fanny-packed European on Alex Chilton. Our Endless Numbered Days is more of the same, but why would Beam throw a wrench into gears when the engine is humming like this? -- Andrew Earles
In the liner notes to Baby Monkey, Moby -- aka Voodoo Child -- writes that he wanted to make "a simple, straightforward dance record." Because this mission is apparently so far removed from the blues-based electronica of Play, he decided to record under the moniker Voodoo Child so he "could just concentrate on the music, and not worry about singles or videos or promotion."
It's a curious decision: Moby began his career making a version of this kind of dance music, and it has informed upbeat numbers on recent albums. Baby Monkey therefore seems like a comment on his career, revealing how far he has come from his roots and how tightly he feels he needs to control his own branded identity. Moby did make this record, but "Moby" could never make this record.
If the concept is indeed commentary, the music sounds something closer to parody. Over the course of a dozen tracks, Moby merely rehashes the conventions and clichÇs of mid-'90s techno (and, as Eminem says, nobody listens to techno). There are a few isolated flourishes, such as the percolating groove of "Unh Yeah," but there are many more elements that sound dated or worse. The tinny strings on "Take It Home" reach so weakly for raver grandeur that the song flirts with genre parody, and elsewhere, the tracks blend into each other anonymously, suggesting a remix of nothing at all.
None of this is to suggest that making a "simple, straightforward dance record" is an unworthy goal. However, Moby displays none of the playful inventiveness that lit up his best work, so that mission feels doomed from the very first programmed beat. --Stephen Deusner
Preston School of Industry
It's difficult to envision a more unassuming album than Monsoon. There's nothing wrong with being quiet and mellow, but you should be laid-back and good-natured about it as well, and ex-Pavement guitarist and Preston School of Industry leader Spiral Stairs is nothing if not laid-back here. But the worst thing you can say about this or any other album is that it's boring. Monsoon's 11 tracks range from mildly amusing to do-your-taxes boring. Singing afterthought lyrics, Spiral Stairs' voice sounds at times like a less-grizzled version of Keith Richards -- and really, what's the point of that?
Like Richards, Spiral Stairs is a good guitarist (the loopy, beautiful lick on "So Many Ways To Lie" is the highlight of the album) who needs a charismatic frontman to bounce off of. Part of Pavement's schtick was their legendary slackness, which fit in perfectly with the mood of the times. But the Preston School of Industry aren't just slack, they're uninterested. And if they don't care, why should we? At least Keith Richards always sounds like he's having fun. --Chris McCoy