Sam Beam’s 2005 collaboration with Calexico invited plenty of Dylan-and-the-Band hyperbole, but it also raised the genuine possibility that the Florida native had gotten his fill of the stripped-down dude-with-guitar indie folk that made him a semi-star in the wide eyes of the Garden State set. On his third full-length as Iron and Wine, Beam confirms that development: Though it features another batch of his typically gorgeous (and typically breathy) vocal melodies, The Shepherd’s Dog is also his most beatwise effort yet: Nearly every one of the dozen tunes here seems built on a groove, not a tune—quite a statement in a scene where Rilo Kiley’s juicy new one earns red-faced condemnations from message-board killjoys.
Given the retiring nature of Beam’s early stuff, it comes as something of a surprise to hear how authoritatively he rides this more rhythmically inclined material: In opener “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car,” he elongates his vocal phrases in a way that transforms a rickety rockabilly lick into the makings of sensual mood music, while an account of getting “trampled in the Christmas parade” on “White Tooth Man” is lent physical oomph by the track’s headlong throb. Lyrically, Beam utilizes the amped-up sonics to emphasize . . . well, it’s always hard to tell. But suffice it to say that The Shepherd’s Dog contains more than its fair share of bodies buried by the interstate and drunk kings fumbling for the royal keys.
Indie-folk traditionalists likely to be unsettled by Beam’s broadening palette are advised to check out In Our Nature, the sophomore set from Swedish- Argentine crooner José González, whose pared-down cover of the Knife’s “Heartbeats” earned loads of buzz. González’s idea of instrumental embellishment is using his foot as a drum machine, and on In Our Nature he keeps things as studiously uncluttered as his English: “How Low,” for instance, makes a central textural element out of the incidental scraping of guitar strings. Yet as on Iron and Wine’s CD, rhythm plays a crucial part in González’s songs, which tick with a metronomic precision that makes the music feel closer to Kraftwerk’s techno than to Tom Jobim’s bossa nova. One telling highlight here? A starkly dramatic reading of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop.” Dudes with guitars: not dead yet.