On Tuesday , it will be 40 months to the day since Sam Beam, dba Iron and Wine, released a full-length studio album of all-new material, and things have changed both a great deal and not at all.
The new record, "Kiss Each Other Clean," is his first for a major label, Warner Bros. Records. Yet, despite its seemingly lush sound, the sort that signifies a bigger budget, he recorded it exactly the same way he did his last few albums — with producer Brian Deck, recording the rhythm section at Deck's studio in Chicago, the rest at Beam's home studio near Austin.
This album was in fact started in April 2009 and completed nearly a year ago, but Beam and his wife found out they were going to have their fifth child, so everything was put on hold. (The same thing happened to the 2007 album "The Shepherd's Dog.")
"That's what happens when Dad stays off the road for too long," Beam says. We're sitting in one of the empty studios at KUT. Beam has just completed a four-song live set at the station. With just his guitar, he plucked out spare versions of songs from the new record, such as "Rabbit Will Run" — which, on the album, is packed with wah-wahed electric guitar, deep percussion, weird whistles, background voices and thumb piano — and the Iron and Wine classic "Woman King," which transforms from a stiff-backed, almost martial song on the 2005 EP of the same name to something a lot more syncopated in studio 1A.
This is where Iron and Wine is now: songs with firm melodies that stand up to acoustic scrutiny, records that are increasingly full of sound. In truth, Beam has been expanding his palette little by little since his striking 2002 debut, "The Creek Drank the Cradle," an acoustic album recorded at home while he taught cinematography in Miami. These days, it sounds as if no sound is off-limits, from "AM Gold"-style '70s sounds to beer-ad sax solos to the occasional electronic beat.
"It was a fun record to make," he says. "It's fun to be surprised while you put songs together. I could easily do 'The Creek Drank the Cradle: Part Eight,' but it's fun to hear something you wrote in a very similar way to those older songs come to life with all these refreshing sounds."
Beam doesn't see the transition from semi-indie label SubPop to Warner Bros. as all that dramatic. "I've been making Warner Bros. records for a while," Beam says — Warner Bros. has owned 49 percent of SubPop since 1995 — "but I also like their roster. I didn't want to get into a place where I was misunderstood or someone would try to tell me what to do with the record, and Warner Bros. is home to Wayne Coyne (and his band Flaming Lips), Jack White and Doug Martch (and his band Built to Spill)." They should be able to handle Beam just fine.
Perhaps the biggest change of the past few years, besides moving from Dripping Springs to Oak Hill — "You want to buy a house in Dripping?" he says — is that Beam is playing more solo shows than ever. (This isn't a reflection on the viability of a full-band Iron and Wine tour, by the way.)
"You wind up using your voice more because that's all you got, that and the guitar," Beam says. "It taught me to trust your melody to the point where I would start doing a cappella stuff and re-voicing things and not really playing the right chords. You get a subversive attitude toward the songs and start to think, 'Why don't we apply this to all of the stuff?'u2009"
It helps to have a crack band that now includes three-quarters of the avant-garde rock band Califone (Joe Adamik, Jim Becker and Ben Massarella; Brian Deck, who played with members of Califone in the Chicago act Red Red Meat, is Beam's longtime producer). "The sounds those guys get are crazy," Beams says. "No matter how straight you play a song, it's going to be interesting. So I feel lucky: I can do the quiet stuff or play the old stuff like the new stuff. Some songs I don't play anything. I just walk around with a microphone like Bob Barker or something."
Which makes one hope that someday we can see Beam, with his signature beard and acoustic guitar, hosting "The Price is Right," or perhaps answering questions on "Hollywood Squares."
Um, maybe not.